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A Potentially Dismal Future

Not too long ago Amazon released the Kindle DX, a larger version of their e-book reader and the notices were pretty good with many of the reviewers speculating that this device could be the future of textbooks.

If that true then the future of education is pretty bleak.

The Kindle itself is an interesting piece technology that by all reports is excellent at it’s job. However, that job is to deliver content that is controlled by and makes money for the publisher.

That’s not an evolution of instructional materials. Hardly a revolution. It’s a very small shift in the current textbook distribution business.

Between the digital “rights” management (DRM)* that comes with the books and being chained to one source (ie. the publishers willing to work with Amazon), this “future textbook” does little more than solidify the hold of a few giant publishers.

Instead we should be developing open source textbooks created and edited by large numbers of experts of all kinds (teachers and students included) and which anyone, anywhere in the world, in a formal school setting or not, could access.

In addition to editable text, online “textbooks” (is that even a valid term anymore?) could include still images, audio, video, and animation from a variety of sources, all of which present the information using a variety of learning styles.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of very tentative experiments such as Algebra in Connecticut and HS science in Virginia. Even the governator of California wants to try it, although primarily as a way for the state to save money, not because he’s necessarily a fan of user-edited educational materials.

It’s certainly going to take the backing of some 800 pound consumers like California (or maybe a certainly overly-large school district?) if the concept of open source texts are ever going to gain any traction.

But the bottom line to all this is that moving publisher-controlled, DRM-locked printed textbooks into a digital form accessible only on proprietary portable devices is no step into the future.

It chains us to the past.

Update (6/14): Today in his blog, Seth Godin, über marketing guru, agrees with me (although I doubt he actually read my rant :-) and offers his own ideas on why the textbook industry needs to die. He even goes so far as to accuse professors who continue to require them of “academic malpractice”.

* EFF explains why DRM on e-books will fail.


  1. Tony

    Yes, but…the Kindle DX will also accept *any* PDF document or e-book, even those without DRM. So, it can most certainly be used as a platform to read open source digital textbooks.

  2. kimberly jean

    DRM on any platform is doomed to fail, not just those on books. As soon as legislators and publishers from all fields realize that data is free and transferable, millions of dollars will be spent futilely on trying to contain information. Money will never be made in the vast quantities of the old days where publishers tightly held the keys to success. I think there is a vast change in *why* people write books, make music, film movies, seen even now – they are getting their message out; exchanging information; becoming or making specialists in fields. With YouTube able to make a star out of anyone, money is not likely expected as a reward. The best one can hope for is becoming the next big Internet meme.

    I think, though, that the Kindle isn’t as abysmal as you make it out to be. The technology for e-readers is still in it’s infancy – so is the demand. Once more competitors enter the field, we’ll see the “paperless” textbook phenomenon explode, and I don’t foresee textbook tycoons holding nearly as much power.

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