September 18th, 2010
Well, I was going to write a blog post about how there should be no such thing as an online textbook, because once we get rid of the textbook-iness of the textbook (good riddance!) and it’s on the web and is interactive, hyperlinked and contains rich media, why not just call it a website? But it looks like I was beaten to the punch and a much better article than I would have written on this subject just appeared, “The Line between book and Internet will disappear” by Hugh McGuire.
Here’s his list of what ebooks (or think online textbooks) can NOT do:
- You cannot deep link into an ebook — say to a specific page or paragraph chapter or image or table
- Indeed you cannot really “link” to an ebook, only various access points to instances of that ebook, because there is no canonical “ebook” to link to … there is no permalink for a chapter, and no Uniform Resource Locator (url) for an ebook itself
- You (usually) cannot copy and paste text, the most obvious thing one might wish to do
- You cannot query across, say, all books about Montreal, written in 1942 — even if they are from the same publisher
Now, how long should this state of affairs last?
You cannot do any of these things, because we still consider that books — the information, words, and data inside of them — live outside of the Internet, even if they are of the e-flavor. You might be able to buy them on the Internet, but the stuff contained within them is not hooked in. Ebooks are an attempt to make it easier for people to buy and read books, without changing this fundamental fact, without letting ebooks become part of the Internet.
Steven Zucker and I have written about and have been following the recent debates about the price of textbooks, and recent innovations in offering textbooks digitally, including renting them, licensing them, printing them, reading them only online, etc. I’ve been collecting the articles at my Posterous site. It’s been fascinating to read about Xplana, Inkling, Flat World Knowledge, and Coursesmart.
We wonder not just about how to reduce the price of textbooks (or make them free), but how long it will take textbooks as a genre to die. Or perhaps they never will…? Should we write an e-textbook that makes use of Smarthistory as a companion site?
In art history, Pearson/Prentice Hall has been busy rethinking the delivery of textbooks. For Janson’s History of Art, you can purchase the hardcover, the paperback, the western edition, brief editions, or you can purchase the ebook as a complete volume or by chapter (along with the proprietary software needed to read it). Via Coursesmart, you can also rent either the bound book or the electronic version – which you can highlight and annotate. These books can also come with passwords for an online interactive website, like the one offered by Pearson called “My Art Kit.” It’s worth noting that this growing multitude of options is creating confusion even on the publishers’ websites and it’s no wonder that faculty rely on the publishers’ representatives or their college bookstore to navigate these options!
Then there’s the simultaneous development of open educational resources (OERs), and that’s the area we’ve been active in, though we remain open to collaborations. OER is a broad term, and OERs are defined as “educational materials and resources offered freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses to re-mix, improve and redistribute.” Open educational resources include everything from open courses, learning objects, open courseware, video courses (think: Academic Earth), and the initiatives in this area have been heavily funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. See also Dave Cormier’s blog post on the complexity of the notions of freedom and open-ness of OERs.
[By the way we couldn't agree more with Dave that "being open need not be complicated, it doesn’t need to be organized, nor does it even need to be funded. It has to respond to a need that exists" - Smarthistory has received grants from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, but runs entirely independent from an institution of higher education, and depends on voluntary contributions, and has a very small and sustainable overhead since it uses an open source CMS.]
Here’s a great list of OER resources and definitions. By the way, museums have been producing OERs for years (usually called exhibition subsites), but we don’t call them that for some reason. And what happened to the “learning object”? Sometimes it seems half the problem is that we come up with these terms that include some things and not other things for absolutely no good reason.
But back to the issue with digital textbooks. Why do we need textbooks at all – especially in the Humanities? If Post-Modernism has taught us anything, it’s taught us that there is not a single narrative, that there is no canon, that nothing can be “comprehensive.” Knowledge is messy. Acquiring it should be a little messy too.