Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Recently I read an article on Big Think’s Disrupt Education blog in which the author suggests that Pearson should enter the tablet market.
My gut reaction is a wailing “nooooo!” On my Kindle, I resent being tied to purchasing ebooks only through the Kindle store—and that’s with the opportunity to purchase any title from any publisher who vends through Amazon (i.e., everyone).
The argument of the Disrupt Education post author, Kirsten Winkler, is that content creators are uniquely positioned to serve their markets, in this case by providing the hardware for digital textbooks, and she cites Amazon as an example. Firstly, that’s a flawed argument: Amazon has only recently entered the content production space; up until that point, it was always, firmly, a retailer. And we have seen that its foray into content creation has been causing all sorts of hullabaloo.
I will say Winkler’s idea about a publisher distributing tablets for free to schools is a really interesting idea, and I’m kind of excited about the possibilities about something like that. But I will also say that if that would happen, it would be critical for the supplier not to be Pearson—or any other textbook publisher, for that matter.
Because let’s imagine that situation: Pearson (really, any textbook publisher—but in this example, we’ll say Pearson,) makes a tablet. Pearson optimizes that tablet for Pearson content. Pearson gives said tablet to schools. I can imagine three outcomes:
What do you think would happen? Of course it should be option one. But in a time of uncertainty, wouldn’t you feel safer, as a company, opting for option two or three? (Amazon uses a system roughly equal to option three for its ebook distribution, and retains ownership of Kindle files.)
I’m still favorably inclined to the idea of a textbook-only platform distributed for free (or at low cost) to schools. However, I think it’s imperative that this sort of operation be performed by a third-party vendor or third-party consortium—much like CourseSmart, the digital textbook provider grown out of a partnership between leading academic publishers that include Pearson, Wiley, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, and many more. So far, this partnership has been pretty successful and is innovating digital textbooks in exciting ways, such as its recent functionality that links digital content directly to student platforms like Blackboard.
I think this kind of solution would be more favorable than, say, wholesale adoption of iPads or other consumer-based companies, because it avoids handing Apple—or any other consumer company—a humongous boost in market share on a silver platter. And a hardware system driven by publishers may leave publishers with more control over the content they create—which, if the future looks anything like this digital-born textbook/website hybrid from Nature Group, will be critical in the future of digital resources.
What do you think? Are textbook-specific platforms a good idea? How should we envision this kind of future?