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Digital Publishing: Imperfect, but Improving

What do students think about when they weigh the prosand cons of conventional textbooks against digital versions?And just how 'edgy' is digital getting, anyway?

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a student named Jason. Jason was studying physics remotely, although he was not sure why he was studying physics. (What he really wanted to do was build some gaming simulations.) But physics was a required course and the new term was just starting. So, after playing the video of his faculty introducing the course and the study of physics, Jason got down toarranging for access to the course materials.

He pondered his options, but didn’t really want to buy the physical copy of the textbook. He knew from the online description that the book weighed 5.6 pounds—as much as all of his technology tools combined. (He had to admit, though, that carrying around the book might be good for his strength training.) He also knew that purchasing the tome would carve a huge chunk out of the amount he had budgeted for his course materials. Besides, the book (mostly text and photographs) was static and difficult to use, even with the addition of the CD-ROM. It was a “dead” object, thought Jason: It wasn’t connected to anything else, was not context-aware, and couldn’t be upgraded. Just as bad, it was difficult to find—or relocate—information in it, and it had no search engine and few audio or video resources for use on his iPod. The content was dense and the writing style was difficult to follow, and there weren’t even built-in assistants to help!

What Jason really wanted to do was buy the digital version of the textbook, but it was quite costly as well—only 30 percent less expensive than the physical textbook. What’s more, the interface was unwieldy and confusing, and the restrictions on printing and access were overwhelming, hard to decipher, and frustrating. Finally, the digital version employed a proprietary software format, which made it incompatible with Jason’s other eBooks. And, apparently, access to the content expired after six months!

There were other considerations, too. Reading for any length of time on the computer or on his small iPod screen was a challenge, but the upside was that he would always have the content with him, so he could make use of shorter snippets of time, for learning. And he wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting the text, or the weight of carrying it. He could even listen to the audio parts of the podcasts while driving or commuting, and he could watch the video podcasts while waiting— after all, he was frequently waiting somewhere for something. His friend Raoul told him that the audio and video podcasts really helped with difficult new concepts and physics vocabulary; he said he often used the interviews with experts to think through some of the physics problems.

Jason also realized that with a digital textbook, he could annotate the content just by “talking” to it; he could even customize his personal automated learning assistant (ALA) to fit his own current knowledge of physics (which was pretty abysmal, he admitted). “Hey!” he thought, “my ALA will be able to recommend useful or helpful resources when I’m stuck or having trouble with a problem!” Jason even decided to call his as-yet-created ALA “Boots.”

Jason’s friend Raoul had also noted that the digital version of the textbook made it easier to generate and post content to the class wiki and blog spaces for team projects and collaboration (although the capability was still somewhat impeded by restrictions on the copying and printing functions). And Raoul had pointed out that the problem simulations (with infi- nite variations) really helped him develop confidence in analyzing physics problems. Raoul confided that many of the simulations reminded him of the simulations on the Holodeck of Star Trek. That final point did it, prodding Jason toward the purchase of the digital version. Still, he found himself dreaming of the day when some publisher somewhere would create an iTunes-like service for textbooks.

We are mobile, wireless, multimedia beings who want knowledge and verification in an instant. We expect our tools to be alive, dynamic, and self-updating.

‘Edge’ Approaches in Digital Publishing

Jason’s personal decision-making struggles aside, it’s clear that digital publishing is a field lurching along many paths and alleyways of experimentation, even in the relatively small niche of providing content for courses. For their potential influence, however, recent approaches bear watching:

Balancing cost and purpose factors.While content likes to be free, most people recognize that work is required to produce content (whether that content is music, software, news, or textbooks), and so they are willing to pay what they feel is a “reasonable” fee. (It is always interesting to observe that when faculty create content they want to receive monies for their work; but when they want to use content, they expect it to be free!) Of course, what is reasonable for one individual is not reasonable for another, and it appears that the test of fair pricing is partially related to the purpose for buying or accessing content. If the content is going to be read thoroughly, digested, and incorporated into our knowledgebase, for instance, we may be willing to pay more. On the other hand, if the content is a relatively short newspaper or magazine article or even a long scholarly paper, and we only want to scan it for a key piece of data, the threshold of costliness will be quite low.

Who’s Using Digital Textbooks?

THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS having the optionof using digital textbooks is still quite low.According to Steve Potash, chief executive of Overdrive (a digital media clearinghouse), and also president of the International Digital Publishing Forum, students on only about 100 (out of4,000-plus) US campuses have that option.

Maybe that’s why one faculty member—J. H. Lienhard, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT—has taken the extreme step of making his textbook on heat transfer available as a free download to anyone. “What cost $150 is now available free,” he proclaimed recently, then added that it’s easy for him to make updates and changes as needed, keeping the content current. It seems probable that students around the world (who are interested in heat transfer) would be willing to pay a “reasonable” fee for this textbook in a PDF file.

Balancing cost and convenience factors. Lifestyle issues are increasingly important; after all, we are mobile, wireless, multimedia beings who want knowledge and verification in an instant. Increasingly, we expect our tools to be alive, dynamic, and self-updating. Yet the textbook, as discussed in Jason’s story, is only one resource component of a course; others—such as journals, simulations, experiences, and the course management system (CMS)—also need to be easily accessible, reasonable in cost, and available in multiple formats. Still, searching for reasonable-cost or free items takes time. If such content could be easily and immediately found and accessed, most students would accept a practical tradeoff between time and cost.

Self-publishing. An interesting new option for faculty who want to author their own physical textbooks (and, potentially, for students who want to produce quality products for their course projects) is a new publishing approach from Blurb. Blurb’s service is derived from an interesting blend of old and new technologies: the physical book, digital tools, and personalized and customized products. The company provides free software, called BookSmart, for creating books. The application is both Mac- and PC-compatible, and carries a fee only when the user orders a physical book. One Blurb tagline emphasizes the ease of self-publishing:“Make your books tonight.” Is it now that easy to get digitallypublished? Yes —and getting easier all the time. That’s agood thing, because the Jasons of the world are waiting.

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