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

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor
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?

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