Next-gen textbooks? It's the ecosystem, not the device

I love hardware as much as the next geek, but solving our ed tech problems will require one heck of an ecosystem; hardware is a tiny piece of the puzzle.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Last week, Jason Perlow and I both wrote about the "Textbook of the future".

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Jason's articles (and the lengthy discussions we've had over the years, especially in the last couple of weeks following Apple's textbook announcement) led to a couple of reference designs in semi-rugged tablets (one for younger grades, another for older students) that would have done Nicholas Negroponte proud. It actually took me a few days to figure out what was wrong with this picture. It should have been obvious from the start. Making Nicholas Negroponte feel any positive emotions has never been anything at which I have shown particular aptitude (nor, in fairness, much desire). Much the opposite, in fact. He's had more than a few choice words for me.

High expectations meet decentralized control Don't get me wrong. Jason's approach to creating an affordable, scalable hardware infrastructure could actually get a device quite sustainably into many millions of students' hands worldwide. The problem, though, is that this isn't Indonesia or Singapore. There is no Ministry of Education in the United States and the raging popularity of the iPad, iPhone, and smartphones in general has sensitized youth in developed countries to rich, responsive interactions on their touch devices. Colors pop, photos gleam, video is captured in HD, and apps have graphics that rival console gaming systems.

Education, perhaps more importantly, is constitutionally handled at the state and local levels, despite federal funding and programs that might suggest otherwise. There is no way to impose a single device, particularly one that represents the lowest common denominator in hardware for the sake of scalability, nationwide. The constitution doesn't support it (for better or worse) and the consumerization of IT about which so many enterprises worry has penetrated education quite thoroughly: students and teachers will demand better, even if it is at the expense of many students not having access to a mobile computing device and next-gen textbook viewer.

Reference designs are great, but... This hardly means that Jason's thought experiment was wasted. On the contrary, he spec'd out a reference design that could be the basis for an entire generation of educational tablets and I think he did a great job capturing many of the most basic requirements for tablets that need to withstand the rigors of school environments. This is actually where OLPC found some of its greatest success: it wasn't in building and distributing hardware, but defining a market segment (netbooks) that could serve educational needs at an affordable price. Their latest reference designs, though largely vaporware at this point, also stand to help define the next generation of affordable, kid-/learning-friendly devices; thankfully, they've abandoned the hardware business.

I would argue, though, that, while many young people in the US and beyond may very well end up with devices like Jason and OLPC have outlined in their backpacks, a far better approach (especially in developed markets) is BYOD (bring your own device). This is where the real work begins. Whether students are bring their own devices, using school iPads, using Chromebooks bought for 1:1 initiatives, or using some variation of Jason's proposed hardware, all of these must be brought together in a strong ecosystem of content and apps that is hardware-agnostic, inherently open, and based in the cloud.

Next: It's all about the cloud »

One of the most compelling ideas from Jason's piece is that the cloud needs to do all the heavy lifting. Regardless of the device sitting on a kid's desk (or wedged in the crook of their arm or warming their laps under a tree), it needs to be able to act as a thin client with the browser insulating whatever hardware they chose (or could afford or even needed because of a particular disability) from the presentation of educational content and resources.

The Silk browser portends the future Amazon has already introduced the first hints of this technology with their Silk web browser which allows heavy rendering activities to be handled by their EC3 infrastructure, speeding up and smoothing out the web experience on the Kindle Fire's decidedly mid-range hardware. Need to optimize content for a small, low-resolution screen (maybe even an e-reader or a feature phone, the latter of which remains the primary means of Internet access in many developing countries as well as for many underserved populations in the States)? Pull from a robust content ecosystem or resources posted by teachers in whatever format and handle the presentation in the cloud. Need to upconvert simulations or interactive video for devices that support it? Do it in the cloud. You get the idea.

And it's not just about presenting content on heterogeneous student hardware. It's about giving teachers repositories for their own content, enabling sharing among colleagues, creating tools for building and aggregating resources, and developing tools that bring social learning and learning management systems together.

It's the end of DRM as we know it...and I feel fine DRM? It has to go as we know it. Gone. Bye Bye. One of the biggest failures of iBooks is that every student must have a copy of the book and schools can neither share nor transfer ownership of the texts. The last thing we need is to give schools a reason to stick with dead trees, but when an outdated and Draconian view of DRM that barely works for consumers is applied to education, there's just no good that can come of it.

What gets me is that the technology is here. The cloud is thriving, we have great open formats for building and sharing content, we have smart subscription services and software licensing models that could easily be applied to texts and other educational resources, and learning managements systems increasingly talk to student information systems, library systems, data mines, and third-party services. Imagine site licensing for interactive textbooks (50% the cost of paper, 5-year licenses, 10% upcharge for semi-yearly updates...done), licenses that allowed teachers to remix proprietary content with tools from publishers.

Opportunities There are countless ways to make money here, countless ways to save money, and countless ways to make sure that students have equitable access to resources. In a BYOD model, for example, students below a certain income threshold could be provided with low-cost devices, low-cost subsidized loans, or all-out computer scholarships. It would certainly be cheaper than a full-blown, school-sanctioned 1:1 program.

And yet, what we get is a closed ecosystem from Apple who is just a little too cozy with the major publishers and open educational resources that sit on the sidelines because some school committee member thinks everyone should have iPads.

The time has come, folks. Perhaps not quite as Jason Perlow envisions it, but the environment is ripe for some serious disruptors. Kno is on the right track in terms of books, Google is getting there on some parts of the ecosystem, Amazon has some pieces of the content and delivery puzzle, but someone has to fit it all together. One has to wonder if Amazon's recent acquisition of TeachStreet, the staff of which it surprisingly rolled into AmazonLocal, might not actually be the beginning of a play in the ecosystem space. We'll see if the TeachStreet folks remain part of their daily deal site.

Whoever makes it happen, though, needs to worry less about the specifics and more about a holistic picture of e-learning and what it should and can be in the 21st century.

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