The time is now for digital textbooks

Digital textbooks have reached a moment of punctuated equilibrium.

Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that says that evolution isn’t a straight line. Species remain the same for long periods of time, and then suddenly there’s a burst of dramatic change.

That’s how I see digital textbooks. We’re poised to see all the years — if not decades — of predictions and debate left behind. Change is here. It’s driven by technology, by the arrival of ebooks and the digitization of print, and by a consensus among publishers and educators that the time is now.

Sooner than later, more learning will flow into minds of students from digital than analog source materials.

This point was made dramatically — and for me, too sensationally — by Nicholas Negroponte at a recent Techonomy conference. He proclaimed that the “physical book will be dead in five years.”

Now keep in mind that I’m co-founder of Kno, a start-up digital textbook company that has a very strong point of view about what an educational device needs to be. Nonetheless, pronouncements about the imminent demise of textbooks aren’t helpful. It feels like digital gloating. This isn’t a matter of sides, it’s a matter of what’s best for students, for faculty, for the future of America — and how to eliminate the barriers to digital adoption.

Barriers to digital adoption

Barriers to digital adoption exist on three levels, and they will not fall away overnight. But by understanding them, and dealing with them intelligently and collaboratively, we can create an environment where the pursuit of academic goals, a reverence for tradition, and an embrace of technology can exist healthily together.

The first obstacle is structural. The educational establishment has been built on the scaffolding of printed textbooks. Semesters and courses are structured around them; professors write and review them; publishers are part of the fabric of departments and the administration.

The second gating factor is emotional. Universities are traditional and slow to change, particularly when such a seminal component of the college experience is at stake. This is not a new complaint. More than 70 years ago, H.G. Wells wrote “We are living in 1937, and our universities, I suggest, are not half-way out of the fifteenth century. We have made hardly any changes in our conception of university organization, education … for several centuries.”

The third hurdle is political. Textbooks are proxies for surrogate wars over hot-button issues like evolution, gender studies, and competing views of history. They’re even fought over subjects seemingly as non-controversial as algebra. Because digital textbooks are fundamentally an open platform — capable of being continually modified and adjusted — this new architecture is threatening to all those with vested interests.

Overcoming the obstacles

Three events are needed to overcome these barriers:

  1. The development of a device that honors the textbook while incorporating a full digital experience.
  2. An open platform that encourages innovation.
  3. The development of extraordinary applications that will push education to new levels of pedagogical discovery.

It will also require the full participation of publishers, educators, and administrators in this process.

As for the political obstacles, these will fall away. Advocacy groups will realize that they can’t make textbooks a battleground anymore. The open world of the Internet has changed the game forever. It’s no different than brands learning they can no longer control the dialogue: any shopper can go to or and read negative consumer reviews of products being offered for sale. Not long ago, experts said it was impossible for merchants to allow that on their sites.

So despite the obstacles, I believe we have reached the point of punctuated equilibrium and change will happen. I wake up every morning increasingly excited by the potential for transforming the education system.

We’ve spent decades on distracting debates about issues like the role of technology in the classrooms. Meanwhile, we’ve been failing our young people. As evidence, look
to this recent The New York Times article: “The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.”

Let’s encourage the spirit of innovation in higher education that we need to succeed in a global marketplace. Digital textbooks are a critical first step.


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