Is the word “Textbook” obsolete?

Matt Greenfield posted a blog entry yesterday on the Huff Post on whether it’s appropriate to continue using the word “textbook,” now that the digital transition is upon us.

It’s interesting that the word in English is the only one (that I’m aware of, at least) that doesn’t designate the book specifically as an educational object. In French, for example, “textbook” would be translated as “manuel scolaire,” scholarly manual; in German, it’s “Lehrbuch,” teaching/instruction book (the Spanish “libro de texto” is likely a neologism derived from the contemporary English word). Perhaps the origin of the word “text” stems from the use of primary source materials (that makes sense to me) but the openness of the word may actually be helpful as we make the digital transition. Precisely because it has an etymological relation to weaving, blending together, it could be flexible enough for repurposing (as it has done so already in the digital realm, as, for example, “hypertext.”) There’s also a minimalist and direct sense of the word “text”: It’s clean and dry and unencumbered.  And regardless of the many ways in which the digital transition will play out, and despite the use of video, audio, 3D simulations, and other “learning objects,” who would deny that “text,” as the written word, is still the foundation of learning and will continue to be? “Visual learning” can be a great complement that helps reinforce concepts but there’s no substitute for grasping them at a textual level.

The form of the book, called a “codex” or “block of wood” at its origin in the first century AD, is really what’s at stake here—and likely much more so than it is for general reading and novels.  The core text in digital learning inevitably, and by design, points beyond the work’s container, its borders. That’s not been the case in the early going of general reading materials, especially novels—the content that’s propelling the growth of eBooks generally. These latter are usually self-contained, mimicking the physical book experience.

One could argue that the success of digital reading in the areas of general reading, novels, etc. and its lack of success thus far in most educational circles actually mirrors that extent to which the book form holds up in the digital medium. That is, Kindles, Nooks, and the like can offer satisfying reading experiences when the content fits neatly, and in a linear way, into a discrete package—whether that package is physical or virtual. Studying in a subject area, instead, is not usually linear and so well contained in a progressive narrative. One flips back and forth between sections, writes annotations in the margins, writes out notes elsewhere.

In this sense, the textbook might be the foundation but it is always physically interactive for the student; the trick, which no one has yet shown successfully, is to create a new kind of immersive experience that isn’t merely as good as physical interactivity but actually better for learning outcomes (otherwise, why bother?). And when that emerges, which is likely but not immediate, we will indeed need to dispense with that odd construction, the textbook.

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Amazon, Apple, and the Priority of the Platform

The federal antitrust lawsuit initiated late last month against Apple and major publishers is indeed the boon to Amazon that most view it as. As a book publishing analyst put it in a NY Times article on the story, “Amazon must be unbelievably happy…Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them.” He and others from the publishing industry see this, however, as not just a boost for Amazon but a development that portends darker days for publishers and ultimately for the reading public: “Publishers and booksellers argue that any victory for consumers will be short-lived, and that the ultimate effect of the antitrust suit will be to exchange a perceived monopoly for a real one. Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.”

Such a suggestion, I think, is misplaced because it underestimates the depth of the changes now afoot in the publishing industry. Lower eBook prices may be one effect of Amazon’s successful drive to dominate the market for eReader devices, but the company’s comprehensive distribution platform (which includes the capacity to create and manage content) helps to raise the very question of what it means to be a publisher. “Content is king” is the cliché so often used by owners of content, and new media businesses have turned that on its head. Distribution, the “platform,” now takes priority—for a sufficiently developed and mature one will attract the highest quality content available. We’re already at the point where authors, collaborators, editors—people who create content generally—no longer require the independent services of a publisher to achieve their goals. These needs—editing, distribution, marketing—can now be handled by the distribution companies themselves, as Amazon has already demonstrated with the launch of CreateSpace and its related Kindle Publishing arm. And as supportive as Apple has been of traditional publishers, it also now operates its own self-publishing unit, ibooks Author, designed especially with the educational textbook market in mind. Publishers and their analysts may one day look at this period, in which they’re worried about pricing controls within the context of traditional publisher and bookseller relations, as the last of their halcyon days.

Amazon will be dominant, to be sure, but it certainly won’t “hold all the cards.” Instead, a multiplicity of channels will emerge that allows all kinds of content creators, and the infrastructure that supports them, to have direct access to their readers and users. As announced yesterday, Barnes & Noble has enticed Microsoft to work together toward this end. While there’s good reason to be skeptical about the fruitfulness of this particular partnership, there will clearly be alternatives to Amazon. This is good news, not only for readers but for creators of content and their supporters, and for those who are excited to see human creativity channel itself into new forms of expression, as it is now beginning to do.

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