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iPad 3G and the vacancy of the connected textbook

Last Friday was iPad 3G day and, at my house, the FedEx truck barely made it out of the driveway before the iconic Apple-designed packaging was discarded on the floor and my iPad was busily synching it’s pre-purchased apps.

iBookstoreFor the past couple of years I’ve been pulling out my iPhone and my Kindle in meetings, laying them on top of each other and saying, “There — something like that” when asked what the digital textbook would be like. It was an attempt to convey a fuzzy, absent space in my thinking where a tool should be that could serve as a window to the Internet, to an engaging world of content that invites exploration, and to communities of peers and others that enrich learning. Friday, I finally got to hold a beautifully designed piece of hardware with equally beautifully crafted digital books and learn a little more about the shape and structure of that fuzzy space.

The Elements, Alice, and Jack have been reviewed extensively elsewhere. My personal experience? Delightful. Engaging. Fresh. In an earlier post, I characterized the 21st-century textbook as, among other things, living, interactive, and connected. The artful books I enjoyed on my iPad brought home just how well authors can deliver engaging books that are living and interactive using the technologies of today. The fuzzy vacancy in my mind is filled up in places by rotating images of Boron and Ytterbium, or by a jar of Orange Marmalade falling down the rabbit hole. In other places, the fuzziness persists.

My iPad is connected, via Wi-Fi or 3G, almost anywhere I go. Why aren’t the books?

As far as “connectedness” goes, these wonderful new books are the App Store equivalent of ringtones: content that is created, then downloaded to live out its existence within the confines of a single device. A connected book, on the other hand, whether it be a textbook, a storybook, a reference book, or a novel, is a medium through which people interact. The shape of that interaction begins to emerge in conversations about shared underlines and margin notes and dog-ears and real-time chats about the plot twist in chapter 8, and things that make “book club” implicit in the book itself.

Largely, though, that shape is still amorphous. Somehow, connected texts will help us leverage our collective intelligence. Somehow, they will help provoke learning and expertise building at the level of individuals and communities. Somehow, they will support both broad exploration and deep dives and continue to evolve as the boundaries between the book and the community that engage with it start to blur.

Today, a textbook under the iPad model would be engaging as all get-out. Perhaps ‘ringtone’ is too stingy a parallel — call it a single-player casual game: engaging, interactive, current, well-designed. What, then, is the equivalent of the serious online massively multiplayer version?

There’s a vacancy where the connected textbook ought to be, so I look at all the things that connect us on-line: the social networks, the blogosphere, the gaming world(s), the photo-sharing sites, the collaborative on-line works, and so on and I conclude only, “There — something like that.”

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  • Rob Tucker

    Great post, Marie. Your description does sound like Stephenson’s primer where the “connectedness” of the textbook is on many levels — connectedness to location, connectedness to historical patterns of interest of the owner of the book, connectedness “forward” with algorithms that determine best possible “next books.” I’m also reminded of the “Giant Game” in Ender’s game — where some stories only have “endings” when the readers are ready for those endings. This notion of fluid and evolving book does to books what the Web did to information — it lets sequence and content be determined by the user and by semi-intelligent agents in the Web itself (e.g., Google’s algorithms).

  • Lucy Gray

    Marie, my first reaction is yes, we need living textbooks. My second though is about textbook publishers. Are publishing entities visionary enough to create something totally different? Will they put the required thought into future digital textbooks that’s desperately needed, or will states with big adoption programs still be calling the shots? I still think these companies are focused on markets, not innovation, and I hope they prove me wrong.

    Tangentially, this also makes me think about when I became an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2005. Jonathan Ive addressed our group when we visited the Apple campus, and I was struck by what seemed to motivate his work. He was less concerned about superficialities, and more about creating a well-designed, well thought out object. He and his team seemed very focused on doing their jobs well first and foremost. This leads me to two things… a) I wish publishers thought this way instead of being driven by markets and b) look what this mindset has done for Apple. My hope is that publishers can be more proactive, than reactive, and dream differently. Good design of anything should drive innovation.

  • Clancy Marshall

    Marie,
    I completely agree that we need “connected textbooks.” Our goal at DynamicBooks is to connect the student with his/her instructor via a dynamic textbook. We’re excited about the iPad because it seems to be the perfect vehicle!
    I can envision a classroom where students access their DynamicBooks via their iPad, highlighting, taking notes, sharing information with classmates. And in that same classroom, the instructor could access his/her DynamicBook via iPad, continually updating the text to make it more relevant for students.
    So exciting to think how education can become so much more relevant and interactive!
    Clancy Marshall, GM DynamicBooks
    cmarshall@dynamicbooks.com

  • Alex Tolley

    Wouldn’t the connected text book look more like a Wiki on steroids, not a packaged product like current textbooks or their App Store equivalent?

    I don’t see the iPad per se as necessarily a good platform for textbooks, except where it functions more as a web browser.

  • Jonathan Peterson

    The current ipad apps are just later day CD-ROMs, beautiful coffee table books that show off the device.

    You want Wikipedia with the quality of content of Passage To Vietnam and timely travelogue video/photo/commentary from your social network.

    Paying for it is the hard part.

  • Barnaby Wasson

    The real power of the early internet was the same that the personal laser printer and the first mac delivered…the power to publish.

    It seems to me that the current thinking is focused on delivering closed solutions (i.e. Facebook, Tweeter, even iApps). The potential of interconnected/living “book” communities lies within open standard communities. The work the wiki communities is carrying out is exciting.

    On the other hand, the tremendous amount of effort and knowledge that goes into crafting a text book requires a large amount of commitment (time/money/knowledge) that usually does not come together without the involvement of private enterprise.

    Where am I going with this? I feel it in my gut that the living textbook won’t be realized until the development of these textbooks embraces open standards. Go back to the beginning internet. When everyone was using basically the same standards (HTML), a interactive community was formed. As long as this company or that company keep trying to become the next self-contained community (i.e. Facebook), the much large internet community looses out.

    Take care,
    -barnaby

    ADE, 2003

  • Marie Bjerede

    Rob – thanks for bringing up those additional layers of connectedness. Connection to context is perhaps even more complex than connection to content and community.

    Posted from my iPad

  • Marie Bjerede

    Lucy – great point about how hard it is for incumbents to change paradigms, especially when it impacts the existing business models. Publishers, I think, are in a bit of a catch-22 situation where it’s hard to justify investing in a still amorphous ideal that their customers are not yet clamoring for. Perhaps this is an area where innovation needs to happen disruptively first?

  • Marie Bjerede

    Barnaby – for education especially, it seems open standards could drive innovation. What layers do we standardize? Format? Rendering? Social graph? Instrumentation? Where do you avoid standardization in order to leavenroom for innovation?

    Posted from my iPad

  • Gary S. Stager, PhD

    I wrote an article a few days ago discussing why iBooks is not yet ready-for-primetime.

    Why iBooks (currently) Suck

    IMHO, the much-praised “Alice” for the iPad is less impressive and less interactive than eBooks created in the early 1990s.

    I too agree with Lucy, the textbook industry needs to go away. It holds no potential for innovation benefitting learners.

  • Lucy Gray

    Gary, I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the textbook industry needs to vanish. I think they just need to take a cue and consider the possibility that true innovation will trump playing it safe.

  • Steve W

    HyperCard….

  • Tomas Sancio

    A connected textbook is someplace between O’Reilly and StackOverflow.

  • Jason Catena

    Here’s an example of an entire textbook posted on the web, which allows reader comment on every paragraph and exercise. (Guess the publisher?;)

    http://book.realworldhaskell.org/read/getting-started.html#id577314

    This conceptually simple device allows years of commentary and improvement to be collapsed into the space between two editions, or even before the first word in ink gets stamped on pressed dead trees.

  • Peter

    Hi,

    Great article. One type of interaction I’d definitely expect to see in a textbook would be the teacher. The reader would link questions to parts of the book and would receive answers or comments linked directly into the part of the book that caused the comment.

    Looking forward to getting my iPad and having a go at all this :-)

    Best wishes

    P

  • Deon Robinson

    Lucy Gray said: “I wish publishers thought this way instead of being driven by markets …”

    Lucy, I think Jonathan Ive, Steve Jobs, and rest of the folks at Apple have proven that thinking “this way”, being innovative, does in fact move markets. It is profitable to be an innovator. It makes business sense to “think different”.

    You essentially asked if publishers are able to “think different”, my guess from past history is no. However, like he did with the music industry, I suspect if Steve Jobs thinks there is an opportunity to innovate the publishing industry and profit from it, he will drag the publishers into the future by their heels.

    Cheers!

  • Gary S. Stager, PhD

    Lucy,

    The textbook industry has proven over the years that they are quite agile shapeshifters who can pretend to become whatever customers want them to be.

    They control curriculum, testing, test-prep and scoring of those tests – all factors in our current educational crises and money wasting. They make teachers dependent on pablum written by anonymous committees of non-experts when rich primary sources abound.

    There is no reason for them to be bailed out by Apple, the iPad or any other electronic device.

    Why should they be preserved??

  • Ellen Hrebeniuk

    The problem is that even a “MMOText” is still a single text. Education occurs when you have to consider a multiplicity of educated perspectives, some from fellow students (including your teachers) and some from other academics, ie, other textbooks, lectures and comments. Picture how likely it is that rival publishers will want you doing that.

  • Lucy Gray

    Deon, exactly my point. In this age of corporations attempting to duplicate other’s successes, you’d think publishers would get the concept that innovation can be profitable. And yes, it’ll be interesting to see Apple’s next steps as clearly the full potential of iPads isnt realized yet. Gary, you are right, but I am not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water quite yet. I’d love to see textbook publishers rise to these challenges and address your question, “Why should they be preserved?”.

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  • Steve Withers

    I have been buying and reading various books on my large-screen smartphone (Google Nexus One) and I have to say it’s actually pretty good one you get used to it. The iPad itself has little appeal as I’m not able to put a fresh battery in it if it runs low and I can’t replace the battery at all easily when it eventually wears out. The iPad is a sealed unit and opening it voids your warranty….so it’s effectively a throw-away device unless you pay someone to perform out-of-warranty surgery. Any e-reader I buy will allow me to swap in a new battery if I need to. I’m also not a fan of locked-up books. I don’t buy any book – hard or soft – I can’t hand to someone to read when I’m done with it.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Peter: Connected to the teacher – absolutely! And with the ability to ask questions and receive answers in the book, you would also have the ability to dialog with peers.

  • Bill Seitz

    You might want to take a some of the work if:book has done, such as the CommentPress plugin.

    It’s probably unrealistic to expect the publishing industry, *esp* the textbook segment, to lead the way here.

    I suspect some of the first interesting examples will come from someone taking a book, written by someone else and released under CreativeCommons, and doing something new “on top” of it.

  • Martin Haeberli

    I also like iBooks. But:

    a) I also want and need annotations, backed up in the cloud (for example, with MobileMe or DropBox).

    b) I want the option to show the text with no white borders, expanded to fill the screen, so the text is as large as possible.

    c) It would be very nice (for those who have this problem) to be able to easily download one’s purchased library to another iPad, or have this backed up, just like Applications are, when one backs ups and restores an iPad.

    Best,

    Martin

  • Marie Bjerede

    Martin – I love reading my amazon books on my Kindle, iPhone, or iPad depending on what’s convenient. New device? No problem – just go grab any of my books from the cloud. I wish I could share my books (and my annotations) as readily among people as among devices: when it comes to books, I’d rather a borrower and a lender be.

  • Martin Haeberli

    Maria,

    I also do like my Kindle (albeit it is a first-generation Kindle). And I like that I _can_ read Kindle books on an iPhone and iPad. (But the iPhone is generally too small for me, even though I appreciate the back-light)

    _but_, for the Kindle, too, I’d like the option for more sensitivity to using screen real estate effectively – throwing away un-needed border white space in return for scale.

    And I’d love to have controlled sharing on my annotations.

    So I like the ease of sharing Kindle books across Kindle devices better than the current iBooks model.

    On another note, I have also been using Zinio a bit. It seems to be very reluctant to let me use more than one iPad, say to read my Zinio content.

    Best,

    Martin

    P.S. On another note, for those like me who like to read in the dark, I’d like to be able to dim the iPad screen further. (This also goes for general iPad use in the dark – even at the dimmest setting, it can feel too bright).