The move away from textbooks

Colleges and universities are running eTextbook pilots again this Fall semester, and while the pilots of today very much follow the standard form of “the book,” I believe that two forces will push the evolution of (higher) educational eTexts in new directions.

The commitment to making traditional textbooks electronic appears to be minimal. I’ve heard that the percentage of textbooks that are “born digital” is low. Subsequently the cost of converting a text from print to digital adds to the cost of a book, rather than bringing costs down.

Conversely [WC?] the growth of bundling electronic exercises with texts, from what I have seen, has grown greatly over the years. Publishers market the educational additions directly to faculty, and often deliver the exercises through proprietary learning management systems. This allows publishers to collect more data on student interactions and learning, while decentralizing the educational experience for students (and minimizing institutional control over learning).

Given the potential benefits that publishers might reap from exercises, my hunch is that they will the be locus of evolution in higher education textbooks. By increasingly moving content into exercises, a number of changes are introduced:

  • It may be more difficult for instructors to verify the accuracy of materials
  • The ownership of the materials may come into question, as XXX
  • While an exercise might provide a superior experience for student learning, subsequent referencing of materials could be difficult.

While it’s not clear whether instructors or institutions would buy into this model, they would be wise to include it in pilots [awk].

That thing about college

They can take everything away from you, but your education.

I grew up hearing my elders repeat the line above, yet I’ve recently perceived doubt in the value of higher education (Thomas Friedman, for example, contends that “More employers care about whether a worker can add value, not where a college degree was earned”). There appears to be a perception that colleges are not serving the needs of today’s workforce, and that the cost of education does not match its value. Free educational opportunities on the Internet, which exclusively value an “information transmission” model of education, are seen as natural solutions to these perceived problems.

While someone can’t make you forget something you learned in school, I believe that an education imparts something even more valuable. Experiences like the hard work of learning and collaborating with others on large projects — in a way that is necessarily self directed (meaning: not driven by the demands of an employer) — creates a unique opportunity for self growth. I believe this can only be found in the intensive experience like one gets through attending a residential college.

Doug Ward similarly argues that colleges provide a promise, process and product — and the element of “process” in education is unfortunately often overlooked.

[Colleges] have done this through a process of learning that helps students hone their thinking, learn on their own and develop their independence. At the intersection of these two areas lies the main product of education: a credential that opens the door to better-paying jobs and a more fulfilling life.

I think that the changes that bring a “more fulfilling life” also creates a depth of character that is in demand in the modern workplace. While skills such as working together in diverse population, or devising a reasoned approach to a complex situation, might be eventually learned in the workplace; the opportunity build a broad basis of knowledge and skills and to practice (and fail) in the college setting is perhaps a more efficient way to meet workplace needs. While modern needs and technology certainly must bring some change to the college experience, the institution’s role in creating process which engenders a more fulfilling life should not be overlooked.

PS: I write this at the close of my formal educational experience — having successfully defended my dissertation in June.

Top 5 things that excite me about a smart watch

There have been a lot of rumors in the news lately about Apple and Google developing a smart watch. Personally, I find this much more exciting than glass as a useful technology in the near-term. Here’s why:

5. Assuming it has data, it would make the perfect phone interface. You already hold your phone up to your head. Holding your arm near your ear isn’t that much of a stretch.
4. Easier access to contextual data: Much like glancing down to see the time, a useful stream of data is a perfect fit for a watch. I’m an Android Google Now user, and I’m sure the interface would be great on a watch.
3. Bio-feedback possibilities: A device capable of receiving bio-feedback signals brings possibilities for consistent input of data, and more importantly – output. I’ve recently become a big fan of the productivity app Vitamin-R, which nudges you towards productivity. An close-at-hand device like a watch could remind you to take a break or maintain focus.
2. A remote control for the Internet of Things: Better than a TV remote, a watch could allow you to control internet-enabled devices, or might even bring the possibility of devices that respond to your presence. A watch might also be good for gaming as a cool replacement for a Wii-mote.
1. The big win for me would be a watch as a cell data tether.

A personal little wifi bubble to drive a tablet, laptop or any other device would make a smart watch much more useful and economical.

 It would also allow for activities that people often complain wouldn’t work well on a watch — just pull out your tablet after receiving an e-mail.

However, I have a small wrist – hopefully the batteries can get the size down to that of the Nike FuelBand.

For those of you who would take this one step further, check out Mike Elgan’s post on augmentation.

Some library books were made to be digital

I’m heavily in the writing phase of my dissertation, which means that there are frequently topics that I suddenly need quick research. I’ve run into a problem where many of the books I’d like to peak at are completely checked out, even when multiple copies exist.

It sparked a thought that “some library books were made to be digital.” Many of the (clearly popular) books I’m looking at are foundational, or the “best in the field.” I would guess that a good number of them, as disciplines evolve, will eventually be out of date. I doubt these are books a library would want on their shelves for an eternity, but as a scholar I have real and present needs.

It would seem that libraries have the data at hand to discover which books are most popular. These will be:

  • most searched
  • most frequently “checked out” (as a status/time, though perhaps also in number of transactions)
  • most recalled
  • books on reserve

These are probably also the books for which publishers are likely to charge high digital access fees. But, given the need and available technology, this sort of access does not seem like too much to expect.