An interesting article in a recent Wall Street Journal reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had about possible directions for texts in U2.0. The article made some observations about how certain traditional products were based on making customers purchase things they didn’t really want and how digital technologies have made these products obsolete:
Photo companies made customers pay for 24 shots in a roll of film to get a handful of good pictures. Music publishers made customers buy full CDs to get a single hit song.
To me this sounds a great deal like the traditional textbook industry, where the standard texts include coverage of all possible topics, far more than could be covered in a single course.
The textbook industry is in trouble. Students are increasingly questioning the utility of purchasing texts, large parts of which the class will not use. On top of that, text prices are rising faster than the general rate of inflation.
I think we’re likely to see the textbook industry move to an i-Tunes model, where faculty (and perhaps students) can chose which pieces from a large collection of materials they want to use as the text for their course. These custom texts can be printed to order in an inexpensive format. We’re already seeing some limited moves in this direction with the custom texts of the major publishing firms, in which instructors can omit chapters they don’t plan to use, in return for a discount on the price. Open source text projects, like Connexions, are also examples of this trend.
But why stop there? Why not consider alternative formats like audio texts (a la “books on tape”) with graphics provided in a separate digital format (on CD or downloadable from a website). Why pay the expense of print if students don’t need it?
There would be some hurdles to overcome, of course. For audio books, we’d have to figure out a format for queuing up the recording where ever a student wishes.
Some years ago I tried an alternative text from DotLearn. The text was provided online with lots of interesting computer animations built in–features that simply couldn’t be provided in a print medium. The company offered an inexpensive spiral-bound printed version for people who didn’t want to read from the screen. Students didn’t like the text. They all wanted the printed text, but then many were disappointed when they couldn’t resell it. They forgot that they received the resale price and more upfront.
If we had a true digital text, we could allow multiple formats to support different learning styles and preferences.