Sunday, 6 March 2011

an immanent disruption

We're on the verge of a market change due to digital distribution, very similar to what happened in the music industry a decade ago. Just as music changed from a manufactured, industrial medium (CDs) to a digital, fluid medium (mp3s), text books (and books in general, but especially texts because of the ludicris overhead) will begin to 'leak' digitally.

As the means to access digital texts becomes more available, the medium will force a change in how distribution occurs. Because (like the music industry before them) the text book publishing industry has a huge industrial infrastructure they have to try and continually justify, they will not adapt to the new means of text transmission. Disruption is immanent and unavoidable.

"This certainly doesn't mean the end of the traditional textbook, but if the existing publishers follow the footsteps of other industries in trying to resist this disruption rather than adapt to it, expect plenty of angry stories about the evils of internet "piracy," with little recognition that piracy isn't the problem at all."

Already open source publications have started to appear.

The text book publishing industry has fed at great expense from the public (and private) school systems almost since the beginning. The change of transmission medium poses some interesting challenges for teachers, but also many opportunities for authors and editors, especially in locally developed courses. Without having to carry massive printing and shipping costs, and all the sales and marketing infrastructure that has to force it into a high volume industry to stay financially viable, text books could easily be developed at very local levels quite affordably. Ministries could share resources across common curriculum and the results would be locally grown content that fits our specific needs. No more mass market American focused text books that we have no choice but to buy into. The elearning system has already proven the viability of this.

Academics have long peer edited, reviewed, assessed and produced their own literature. Teachers are more than capable of doing the same, and I know many who would happily take a period in a semester to build a new e-text for board or provincial distribution. In house, without the weight of paper publication attached, educational texts could become much more current and specifically designed for student needs, much as the OERB and elearning courses have been written by Ontario teachers for Ontario students. In many cases, that same material could be re purposed to an e-text format without having to reinvent the wheel. Because the material is owned communally and locally, it could easily and often be updated and maintained for continuous consumption. Following the idea of a modular text book, teachers could even assemble specific material in a specific order prior to beginning their class - a digital version of those booklets you used to buy from professors with the selected readings bound in them.

No more 15 year old texts warning of the impending release of Windows XP, no more mold, no more focuses on other countries because our choices simply didn't offer a Canadian equivalent.

This is my kind of disruption.

To push things along, I'm presenting an ereader pilot tomorrow at our heads' meeting. We're hoping to see where the technology is and how etexts might work in the classroom. There's nothing worse than being on the wrong side of the fence when everything changes. Go look up one of the modern history texts in your school this week and find the chapter on the recent collapse of the iron curtain, and you'll see why.

Want to see a future text book? Have a look here. Whether it's ipads, Knos, laptops, PDAs or one of a million variations on the Android tablet, we're on the verge of making digital content easier to access than paper based content. The education system, the main source of income for this fumbling giant, will need to find a better way as it collapses, and collapse it will. No one invested in billions in infrastructure and decades of consistent market place dominance will even know how to begin to adapt, even if what they are doing is wasteful, expensive and self serving.