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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The winter of our [dis]content


tablet device

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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:

  1. Pearson makes all ePUB files readable and usable on its device, and also altruistically gives educators a free pass to use textbooks from any publisher on the device.
  2. Pearson creates an exclusive file format for its device and guards it like the Bush’s baked beans recipe. Only Pearson books can be used on the device.
  3. Pearson creates an exclusive file format for its device and allows other publishers to use it, but all files must be converted by Pearson and are subsequently owned by Pearson. (Or some equally expensive, gatekeeper-y solution. Perhaps involving a steep fee.)

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?

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

3 comments on “The winter of our [dis]content

  1. Claire Schulz
    April 26, 2012

    I understand that having a textbook-specific tablet or reader could open the way for better education-specific features (potentially), but I’m having trouble coming up with anything that another tablet reader couldn’t do. And maybe having a textbook-specific platform that doesn’t really allow other features would keep kids from playing games while we’re in class… Although nothing ever stopped us all from getting “Drug Wars” for our graphing calculators in middle school. While I think it’s important that we develop a plethora of ereaders–like we have a multitude of available mp3 players, cell phones, computers–I think it’s equally important that they can read any type of book. I personally wouldn’t want to have multiple readers for different purposes.

  2. Leah Thompson
    April 26, 2012

    I guess I’m thinking of this more in a K-12 setting, where students wouldn’t actually own the device– it would be more of a borrowing model, if that would even be possible. I know many schools are moving in the direction of giving each student technology– whether it’s laptops or iPads– and I think this would be a way for K-12 publishers to create stronger ties with their customers, by providing them with the technology that enables them to use enhanced content (and therefore enables publishers to justify investment in enhanced content). If nothing else, it’s just an interesting idea.

  3. Hey Leah, thanks for your thoughtful answer to my post.

    Of course it is always risky to give that much power in the hand of one (or even three) major publishers. On the other hand we see problems with the digital divide and BYOD is still not really working as well for a variety of reasons. Dedicated tablets provided by publishers might be the answer as the cost of building them will go down rapidly. Remember when digital watches or displays were darn expensive? Now they are in 99 cent toys. Same will be true for tablets, they will replace books and probably cost as much one day.

    Just read on the edSurge newsletter that Pearson is teaming up with tablet manufacturers in India, btw :).

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This entry was posted on April 26, 2012 by in Opinion, Technology and tagged , , , , , , .

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