Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

Summary: Hardware is only a tiny part of the problem we need to solve to get educational resources into kids' hands (both literally and figuratively) at scale.

My ZDNet colleague, Jason Perlow, and I often bat around ideas of hardware and software combinations that could be truly useful (or better yet, totally disruptive) in education. I spend a lot of time thinking about ed tech, he spends a lot of time thinking about hardware and highly scalable information systems, and the combination of the two always at least makes for some interesting chats. His weekend post, titled "Textbook of the Future: The challenges", is the first volley into a series of articles that we'll be posting that will take a fairly deep dive into the changing face of textbooks, learning materials, and hardware platforms that enable a new approach to teaching. As I mentioned, Jason's background is enterprise information systems, big iron, and systems design on a scale that makes all but the largest school IT rollouts look like assembling a PC kit from TigerDirect. It comes as no surprise, then, that he began by looking at 1:1 computing on a massive scale with a big "what if" around the idea of getting electronic textbooks into every students' hands. Again, it's no surprise that he concluded that the iPad/iBooks paradigm was neither sustainable nor even a particularly good idea. ZDNet's Ed Bott also weighed in on the pitfalls and foibles of iBooks, both in educational and in private settings when he joined Kirsten Winkler and me on our review:ed webcast last week. Ed's piece is right around minute 33 of the webcast embedded below, but the idea of content flows through the entire show, so I've included download and subscription links if you want to download it or view it later. If not, here's the Cliff's Notes: iBooks ain't it.

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Taking a step back: Do we need a "tablet in every backpack"? Jason touched on a number of the ecosystem issues surrounding digital textbooks (both in their current state and as we anticipate their evolution going forward), but before we dig too deep, we should probably ask ourselves (as many readers have), does every student really need a tablet? Do textbooks really have to be digital? And can these devices actually meet all of a K12 student's computing needs? The answers to these questions aren't easy, especially in an age of belt tightening and budget cuts, but the reality is that students must be able to not just hear lectures, read textbooks, and take tests. Rather, they must have access to a spectrum of information and then be able to do something with it. The sheer volume of additional resources to address the needs of gifted students, struggling students, or those who simply don't process information in the same way as their teachers has grown by orders of magnitude and interactive, engaging, up-to-date textbooks are only part of the picture (as evidenced in the webcast above during the segment on Udemy). In the same way, teachers are increasingly being asked to be subject matter experts, not just textbook administrators and reading buddies. Teachers now spend even longer hours designing curricula and building content that supplements or replaces that in texts and provides localized relevance for their students. Again, teachers need a platform to disseminate this content. Finally, students don't learn well in a vacuum. 2000 years of the same tired pedagogies have finally shown us that students learn from and through each other; more importantly, they're entering a workforce in which 3.5 cubicle walls can no longer define a 30-year career as they could for much of the previous century. Collaboration and teamwork are not just buzzwords - they're vital to the success of the modern corporation and characterize a global economy, the likes of which previous generations never encountered. This is a fairly verbose way of saying that, yes, every student needs a device (not necessarily a tablet) that can foster differentiated instruction, access to a wide variety of resources, act as a portal to locally-created content, and provide a platform for collaboration with their peers and instructors. Whether this device resembles an OLPC XO, a Classmate PC, a Chromebook, or a tablet doesn't really matter at most levels. That said, a tablet will most likely be the cheapest, lightest, and most suitable device for heavy content consumption and basic communications, as well as addressing the particular advantages of touch for many students. Yeah, but it's really the ecosystem that's broken This is where things actually get quite challenging, though. We're getting close to devices that are cheap and fast enough to handle the hardware side of the equation. The trouble is the ecosystem. We still have yet to come up with a good way to handle licensing of this new breed of textbooks. As someone who has signed on the dotted line for more than my share of school resources, I can tell you that buying a set of books for every student makes no sense economically or logistically. When 10-20% of students switch classes in the first couple weeks of school but there is no means to process a refund, much less a method to transfer an ebook to another student, current models are sorely lacking. The same goes for distributing content to students. While teacher-created materials can easily live in an LMS like Moodle, which in turn can be accessed on virtually any device, if the ideal student tool is 60-70% e-reader, then they need a mechanism by which PDFs, EPUBs, and other documents can simply be pushed to them. Apple is getting there with device management using OS X Server, but this is hardly an open or widely applicable solution. How about device management? Google Apps administrators can exercise some degree of control over Android devices (assuming they're compatible), but the ability to reimage, deal with users, and deal with software licensing (whether apps or content) is immature at best. They're getting close with their Chromebooks, both in terms of the fully web-based computing model and their web-management console, but, again, the "ecosystem", whatever that is, needs to support standardized deployments as well as BYOD. BYOD, in fact, may be the biggest fly in the ointment, even as it emerges in schools as one of the few sustainable models for scaling up 1:1. If students can bring a variety of heterogeneous devices to school, a robust ecosystem becomes even more vital. Will the next generation of e-texts and learning apps run in a virtualized environment that can play on any Internet-connected device? Perhaps. Or perhaps it will rely on HTML5 and deliver everything in a browser. The only thing that is clear is that Apple can deliver as many slick tools for creating and viewing next-gen textbooks as it wants, but until we sort out the ecosystem issues surrounding digital materials in education, we're treading water, looking at pretty documents from Apple on expensive hardware, looking at fancy PDF versions of dead-tree books on any hardware, and hoping that startups like Kno and Inkling step in with a better way. My piece in this series? If I ran the world, what would this ecosystem look like?

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Security

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    There must be a character limit on the first post -_-
  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    "When 10-20% of students switch classes in the first couple weeks of school but there is no means to process a refund, much less a method to transfer an ebook to another student, current models are sorely lacking."

    Umm, I'd recommend making the devices specific to the class or grade level, rather than bothering to let the students keep the device when moving to the next grade.

    "but, again, the 'ecosystem', whatever that is, needs to support standardized deployments as well as BYOD."

    BYOD is the largest mistake being advocated by ZDNet. Basically you're taxing the workers (or in this case, the parents) and providing yourself with a big conflict of interest between work and personal life. Do I want my boss to be able to remotely nuke my personal life? No. Does a business really want the insecurity of a personal device to come into the workplace? Probably not. Do similar concerns affect a school? Yup. How is this a good idea?

    But yeah, I agree the ecosystem needs some work.
    • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

      CobraA1 --<br><br>I absolutely agree that BYOD is a terrible idea, both in education and in the workplace.<br><br>For the school or employer, it presents a support nightmare in the form of numerous models, configurations, and security vulnerabilities.<br><br>For the student or employee, it demolishes a very valuable wall between your personal and professional lives. Your devices will no longer be <i>truly</i> your own, and you will be paying your own money to subsidize organizations that should be paying their own way: you've already paid taxes or tuition to fund your school, and your employer should provide the tools you'll use to produce.<br><br>If you see an organization advocating BYOD, run the other way.
      • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

        As has been stated more than once in these discussions American society in general is NOT currently willing to pay enough taxes to fund their schools. However, while we agree that they should be able to provide the materials, many of them financially are fighting for their lives. Many people seem to feel computers and similar devices are luxury items not needed by students. I guess they choose not to read help wanted ads which seem to frequently require knowledge about and an ability to use these devices. One question we might ask ourselves: Is it cheaper to educate children or to pay their unemployment and welfare for their adult life?
  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    As long as you stick to 1 to 1, you won't get collaborative learning. Make it 1 to 4 and you may get somewhere. If you doubt that, check out Sugata Mitra's research (see him on TED) - what happened after the Hole In The Wall experiments.
  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    Bear in mind that very big and powerful publishers are on the receiving end of the current textbook debacle and won't let anything innovative touch their bottom line.
  • ebook readers

    all sound like someone forcing a solution on people for a problem that doesn't exist. At the college level, texts and teachers evolve so much that it might make sense to do the ebook thing. In that case the institution will offer hardware solutions at a modest price. In primary school the issues are different, and costs are a big factor. One $100 text will last 5-10 years making it more affordable to the local school district.
    • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem


      Yet as the gap between the value of a high school "education" and a college one increases, waiting to innovate until college just increases the earning/skill gap in our society and puts more a burden on colleges to provide remedial courses. It's not cost savings, it's cost deferment with all the interest expenses that come along with such practices.
    • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

      tkejlboom --<br><br>What's needed are higher standards enforced at all levels of education, and these don't require expensive technology.<br><br>We must return to actual discipline: I don't advocate physical punishment, but teachers and administrators need much greater authority to actually control students if effective learning is to happen.<br><br>We should return education's focus to hard work, individual responsibility, and actual <i>skills</i> rather than "self-esteem," "group activities," and other nonsense that never led to anyone inventing or producing anything.<br><br>Finally, time in our schools should be used much more effectively. In a number of the schools my son attended during his K-12 years, teachers complained about being forced to "teach to the [state-mandated standardized] test." We usually found that the schools which complained the most also wasted the most time on "movie periods," "free study," "pajama day," "crazy hat day," and other possibly-fun but otherwise useless activities. It doesn't take money make productive use of time when you have the students right there in front of you ... it takes effort and preparation.<br><br>For the record, the school that wasted the least amount of time was a non-union private school. I've had many great teachers in public school, but especially today, unionized teachers are paid much more -- yet also <i>whine</i> much more -- than their private school counterparts. Something is fundamentally wrong with the public school system, and it's <i>not</i> entirely due to funding (as teachers' unions would have you believe).
  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    The problem with Christopher's imaging of a perfect digital system for students is that it is just that, a perfect one.

    In my view the first big win for students would be simple text based eTextbooks that would replace a large percentage of the ridiculous weight they have to carry every day. No need to be able to take notes ! no need for fancy graphics and audio ! if this could be achieved then a big step would be made.

    Christopher also talks about teachers spending huge amounts of time designing curriculae ... ? this is simply not true. The maths curriculum hardly needs major reviews every year ... surely. This goes for many if not most courses.

    of course some courses require revision, graphics and other media. But if we want to wait until everything is 100% dealt with, we will wait for ever.
  • College textbooks is the obvious place to start

    With students paying $100 to $150 per book for their college texts, why not just scrap the dead tree model altogether and go entirely digital. No worries about DRM, the kids will find their own way around that.
    • Re; No worries about DRM, the kids will find their own way around that.

      DRM on textbooks is really just as introducing a license to read.

      We do [b] [u] not [/u] want [/b] to go there at all.
  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    It's all about greed. I hear that even a Mac can't read those iBooks created on the Mac itself. If true, that's so sad.
  • Textbooks of the future?

    Really, you have to stop thinking like an old person. It's going to happen and it it will be evolutionary. They will figure it out as they go. Challenges? sure. Every step but that won't stop stop the effort. There are grassroots efforts going on all over the place and some of them are just stupid but, that just lends testimony to the power of technology.

    Take a look at Intelligent Papers (nbook at the appstore). It is a digital textbook platform that ties into LMS systems, grading and testing. It is just the pioneer. It will get better and so will the competition.

    K12 will be the battleground and by the time those kids in middle school are high school bound, the computer will be in the same museum as the Post slide rule. They are small but very bright when it comes to technology.
  • Why bother with an approach that already works ?


    Check http://wiki.laptop.org/go/The_OLPC_Wiki , sleep over it, and then talk to me about scale.

    And ecosystems.

    Oh, sure: this is not "commercial". It's not "established technology". So, I suppose, we should push mainframes ?
  • My Goodness. I never thought Skype was that bad compared to FaceTime

    After awhile, I just gave up on the video and just listened to the audio section of the "videocast"?

    One might think that my comment title and first comment sentence could never be germane to this blog title. But it is.

    Open source solutions to a complex problem as exemplified by Skype software trying to demonstrate a video conference capability must be compared to hardware and software solutions that actually accomplish the task at hand.

    Say what you want about iBooks Author, iBooks, Apple's closed system, iPads, Apple TV but these products and systems are "NOT IN THE ORGANIC FORMATIVE" stage.

    If you wish your children an education taught with tools and concepts that are "done on the cheap" - well, that's a person's choice. That's a family's choice. That's a community choice. That's a school system's choice.

    If a family wishes a different choice for their children than I'm glad closed systems exist that can accomplish that goal. Closed systems can be defined as private schools, BYOD solutions, Charter Schools and teachers that care because their students care.

    If anyone asks that closed system solutions or techniques can't possible work in certain school systems or certain geographical locations, than I would only say that the will to succeed, the will to learn, the will to better one's self and one's community is not present.

    The lack of will is not a societal problem. It is an individualistic problem. Responsibility to "do what it takes" to succeed regarding educational goals rests with leaders, parents, teachers and students.

    If the will exists, than the means to acquire the best tools to accomplish set goals will always present itself.
  • EPub should be the standard, and licensing should be by "account"

    The Apple model of "the store" and "your iTunes account" makes the "device" immaterial. I buy the stuff, it's tied to my account, and I can always use it, on any device I have access to. That's the right "DRM" model. It's truly great that there is device competition, but what's not working, is everyone using their own "content management through sales". Using standards like epub would make it possible. However, before that can happen, Apple's store would need to be device independent, so that I could put epub content on any brand of device.

    I like my iPad, and I like the dependability and support that Apple provides for the price. What you buy with the Apple pricing, is the whole enchilada. You don't piecemeal purchase yourself into a corner of "most affordable". If you don't feel comfortable with buying the whole enchilada, and having to deal with any "not useful" features or "products", then the Apple model is great. If you have to have total choice, complete perceived, perfection (perfection doesn't actually exist) and want to make sure that you don't feel "controlled", then you are probably one of those that hates Apple.

    It's a free world, and an open market. What usually works, is what is the best, overall value, not what is the most open, cheapest or least restrictive. I.e., you can't actually replace the control system on your car, to improve the gas mileage by knowing what acceleration requirements are on the road ahead of you, but you're content to let it cost you extra gas, because you don't have another "visible" choice.
    • Re; DRM on textbooks.

      There is no right DRM for textbooks.
      That is like saying there is a right way to get a license to read.

      .... .... It is the police sir. They say you haven't paid your annual reading license ... ...
      Not a nice future.
  • RE: Textbook of the future? Not until we figure out distribution, DRM, and ecosystem

    Textbooks can be in pdf format, it's done all the time, then they can be read on any platform.

    You don't need a "ipad only" "solution," just more evil greed from apple.

    "ipad only" crap needs to fail totally.
    • Re; "ipad only" crap needs to fail totally.

      To give a company monopoly on what students read is a total failure.