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The future of textbooks. Part 2: E-textbooks

The current notion of a textbook as a sequentially presented, body of knowledge has been around for more than 100 years.  It will continue for some time yet but I take it for granted that the benefits of having an electronic, internet-enabled book are simply so great that paper books will, in the next 10 years, be supplanted by electronic versions.

What will this mean for textbooks – obviously it will change the distribution channel and it will offer textbook authors new opportunities to provide supplementary material alongside the principal text. Mike Hendrickson in his blog post has suggested that publishers may wish to hire producers to support their operations with books evolving into multimedia productions.

Well, this might happen for multi-million selling blockbusters but won’t happen for textbooks.  As anyone who has tried it knows, the effort and skills involved in producing high-quality video are do great that textbook authors simply don’t have the background or ability to do this. It’s hard enough to produce good, meaningful diagrams (which is why many textbooks have few diagrams) let alone multi-media productions alongside the text.

I think that the key benefits of e-textbooks are in 4 areas:

  1. The book can become the focus of a community of readers. I think this is, by far, the most important benefit. Students using the book can see other students’ experiences, can answer each other’s questions and may be able to interact directly with the author. Authors can see what students find difficult and can provide extra material to help them.
  2. Book reconfiguration. I’ve produced various editions of my book over the years and ever time I make a major revision I change the structure. The truth is that, for most topics, there is no single logical sequence of presentation and that the organization of material is best left to the course instructor rather than the book author. E-textbooks, if designed and written properly, can be loosely integrated allowing them to easily reconfigured to suit the needs of a specific course.
  3. Incremental acquisition. Many courses taught in universities use part of a textbook in different years. But students have to buy the whole book even if only half of it is relevant to their course. An incremental purchasing model for e-books allows them to buy the chapters that they need, when they need them. They may be able to subscribe for updates so that these are pushed to their e-book reader as they are available. Such an approach makes it feasible for instructors to draw on a number of different books for their courses – it’s currently unrealistic to expect students to buy all of these.
  4. Integration with ‘free stuff’. Although I have criticized ‘free stuff’ in a previous post, there is good material out there, especially research papers on authors’ personal sites and repositories. E-textbooks can link seamlessly to this, allowing some topics in a course to be explored in depth. Of course, the problem here is that lots of the ‘free stuff’ is ephemeral and likely to disappear as web sites are reorganized. But authors can work around this by caching local copies, etc.

An often suggested ‘advantage’ that I haven’t mentioned is the notion of continuous updating where the textbook is revised incrementally and readers always have the ‘most recent’ version of a chapter. I’m unconvinced by continuous updating (except, of course, for error correction) for 2 reasons:

  • It makes it very hard to maintain links between different chapters of the book. References from one chapter to material in another are potentially unreliable and you may find that styles differ from one chapter to another.
  • Instructors cannot rely on the material in the book. Say you teach from one chapter but by the time of the class exams, the chapter has changed. How do you relate what you have taught to what’s in the book. Pragmatically, instructors reuse material such as tests and exam questions in different years and really don’t want to have to continually redesign these.

We still have a lot to learn about how to write and design e-textbooks – simply re-interpreting the XML will lead to very ugly and unreadable books. But authors will go through this learning experience and e-textbooks in science and engineering will become the norm in the next few years.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing

 

How these books might be published and the problems of publishing will be the topic of my next post on the future of textbooks.

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The Future of Textbooks. Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete?

I’ve recently read an interesting article on the future of the book, written from a publisher’s perspective and watched an excellent video of Margaret Attwood talking about the future of publishing from an author’s perspective.

This stimulated me to think about the future of academic textbooks, specifically books for a student audience, which are used to support teaching.  This is quite a complex topic so I can’t cover it all in a single post – this is the first of a number of posts on this topic.

I’m a textbook author so, obviously, I’m not unbiased. However, I have thought carefully about the requirements for a textbook and, arguably, the fact that my book has been around for such a long time means that I can’t have got things completely wrong.

Some people argue that textbooks, in the sciences at least, are obsolete and that faculty and students can get all the information that they need from free sources on the Internet.

Well, if you think this, try the following test. Assume that you are teaching a course on software engineering and you’d like to include some material on software testing. Google ‘software testing’. There’s lots of superficial articles defining testing terms (e.g. Wikipedia) and information about testing tools but nothing that actually tells you how to design tests. Hardly any of the material includes examples or explanatory diagrams. Maybe if you spend some hours searching and skimming you’ll find more material. But, much better to turn to How to Break Software: A Practical Guide to Software Testing , a short book on the subject.

The material on the web tends to be superficial and, almost universally, lacks the illustrative examples that are so important when you are trying to explain things to students. The reason why this is the case, of course, is that examples and good explanatory diagrams are time consuming to produce. People who spend the time creating a coherent description of some topic rightly want some reward – perhaps financial but more often with textbooks, some tangible recognition of the work that they have done.

As well as finding ‘free stuff’, there is also the problem of integrating material from a diverse range of sources into a coherent course. More often than not, you will find that material from different sources has overlaps, contradictions and omissions and you will have to work (as a reader) to reconcile these. Alternatively, the course instructor will have to sort out the problems and, almost certainly, do more work than they would have done with a textbook.

So I believe that textbooks, as coherent accounts of some topic, are not obsolete and that students and instructors will continue to use and buy them. But, for sure, they will have to change – they are too expensive,  monolithic and do not take advantage of the multiple channels of communication that are now available. What these changes might be will be the topic of my next post.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing

 

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