Remix and Mash-up Course Textbooks

The idea of remixing textbooks and mashing up various sources has been around for a while. Most of the companies offering these services sound great, but just didn’t catch on in a big way. But that may change – Pearson announced today that they will be jumping into the textbook remix/mash-up arena with Project Blue Sky.

You can read the details about this project also in this article at The Chronicle. Gooru Learning is also a part of this partnership.

Of course, instructors have been doing mash-ups with photocopying machines forever, with many of them switching over to scanners and PDFs once they take their courses digital. My prediction is that the price point on these “mash-up” textbooks will be the make-or-break of this project. Students have already grown tired of over-priced digital textbooks.

Another issue to consider is what else can be mixed into the content. What about interactive activities? Videos? If you are going to put these on a mobile device, will you be able to insert blog posts and other websites into the content? Will the authors of these websites be compensated for their inclusion?

I am also curious to see if there will be some kind of bulk rate for entire schools. Most schools purchase access to journals and other electronic research materials… why not just buy access to textbooks also? Then you can mix in journal articles with the chapters from the text book you want, and the students don’t have to pay extra for textbooks on top of fees. Or maybe they just have a low, flat textbook fee each semester? If they focus Project Blue Sky on individual instructors, it will basically just become as convoluted as our current textbook system is – just a bit easier on the back. But focus it on entire Universities – you might have a massive, customizable tool right at your fingertips.

eBook Readers Get Bigger – Literally

Desktops are shrinking into laptops, laptops are shrinking into netbooks, and every year every Apple device ever invented is ever so slightly shrinking in comparison to the former version. Our computer screens used to be larger than most home aquariums and now they are thinner than any textbook I had in college.  eBook Readers used to be small palm sized devices and now they are… the size of magazines?

The new Kindle DX is larger than it’s predecessor?

That seems pretty counter-intuitive in the digital world, but in the world of eBooks this concept might just be a plus.  When I first blogged about eBook readers a few months ago, I pointed out that the best market for these devices would be education.  Think of all the back damage you could save by replacing textbooks with a slim, lightweight reader.  Not to mention the damage to your wallet, right?

Well, one out of two ain’t bad for now.  The Kindle DX is attempting to reach educational markets – Amazon announced today that they had reached agreements with three major textbook companies (among other interesting announcements).  But the Ivy League level price tag on this device still keeps it out of reach for most individual college students.  Let’s hope that some deals are struck soon to get these devices into grade schools in place of paper textbook soon.  If just to save a few forests each year.

I’m still n0t sold on the concept of eBooks, but I am becoming more open.  In my book, the size factor is much better now: bigger is better. However, some other things still bother me:

  • No color.  Sorry – that is just hard to accept.  Can someone get to work on that please?
  • The plastic border around the whole thing.  It just seems… distracting.  You usually don’t have a plastic border around your books and magazines.  Why can’t they make that more seamlessly integrated, like the iPhone screen?  That way, it would look more like the blank space around a page than a frame.
  • Better integration with online content.  Maybe this is there and is not being hyped yet. But if you want me to subscribe to newspapers through the Kindle – give me a reason. What about newspapers that update as stories are posted? Or how about the ability to add comments through that keyboard at the bottom?  What about giving me the ability to Twitter or Digg or whatever the stories I like through the Kindle – pushing it out to those services?  That would pull in more paying customers, potentially.

But to be fair, there are some nice features (with even more experimental ones coming down the road):

  • Bookmarks and annotations – essential for educational usage
  • Search across books – not just in one book
  • Access Wikipedia. Yep.
  • A basic web browser (experimental for now)
  • Play mp3 songs (also experimental for now)
  • And, of course, don’t forget about the lower cost of books and the cleared up storage space at home (but, then again – how many eBooks do you have to buy to make up for the high price of the device itself?).

Then there is the one killer feature that I know someone is working on but is not near ready – touchscreen e-ink.  Basically, to get e-ink to look like a real sheet of paper, they had to remove some screen layers – and those layers are where the touch sensitive stuff goes.  But some people do have hope that it will be figured out.  So that means someday your eBook reader might also become an ePad for writing.  Nice.

Of course, I am thinking 10 years down the line, when they might have brilliant HD color touchscreen e-ink portable computers.  Your laptops could one day be a simple device the size of a magazine, with a full operating system and a huge flash hard drive – all displayed through an interface that looks like a high-quality piece of paper. You could  interface with this device like you would an iPhone, as well as take pictures, videos, etc. And it is carrying your entire music, movie, and literary collection in one place.

eBooks Are Getting Kinda Hot These Days

Maybe it was just me, but it seems like a large number of updates and emails I got this week were about eBooks.  They’ve been around forever it seems without really ever catching on.  For a while, it seemed like it was one of those cool SciFi ideas that looked great in the movies, but people realized that it wasn’t so cool in real life.  I guess that is not the case – developments are happening in many areas… some of which I am not really sure of.

First of all, there is the Amazon Kindle.  Or it’s the Kindle 2 I guess.  Interesting features.  But the lack of color really seems to be a significant minus in my department.  I know it is new technology and all that, and they will probably figure that out some day.  So, really – significant but not huge.  The biggest drawback is the one that always seems to plague the technology world: it’s a separate device.

Yep – yet another device for you to find a storage space for.  It can’t do everything that your laptop, smart phone, digital camera, or even old school beeper can… so you will have to find yet another spot on your belt to hang it from.  Belt holders are quickly becoming the new pocket protectors.

So – maybe you don’t always need it with you, but think about those vacations now…. finding a place for your laptop, digital camera, smart phone, video camera, mp3 player, and now… eBook reader.  The apparent overlap of functionality there is mind boggling.

Or you could just read the eBook on your laptop… or iPod… or smart phone.  But that would be too simple, huh?

Maybe I could see the use of an eBook reader if you marketed them to schools as a replacement for the stacks of books that students are carrying around every day.  Well, at least, the books they should be carrying around.  Of course, for the price of a Kindle you can swing a decent smart phone that reads PDFs and does a whole lot of other things that would be useful.

Another head scratcher is the Follet Digital Reader.  It is not a product, but a whole new format designed to replace PDF files.  Basically, it looks like Follet didn’t like that some minor features were missing from PDF, so they decided to re-create the wheel… only with slightly different hubcaps.  Some nice, but ultimately unnecessary, differences.  Or so it seems.  You have to to have .Net 2.0 on your computer to download and try it out.  I avoid .Net 2.0 like the plague… and I don’t have admin privileges to install it in the first place.  This new reader could actually be the coolest thing since sliced bread, but I’ll never get to know.  That is a severely limiting factor in my opinion. You may never see this thing make the jump to mobile devices because of that.  Or even to a Kindle 2 for that matter.

Oh, and by the way – if you are already a Follet customer – you seem to have no choice in this change. That is what customers today love so much – lack of choice.

Of course, Gmail was sounded pretty redundant until people started using and realizing ‘hey, this really is better than anything out there right now.’  Maybe the same will happen with the Follet Digital Reader.

I guess you really can’t blame people for trying something new.  But… why? Especially when there are already good options already out there? My problem with so much of this is that so many companies just re-create overlapping technology.  Why not just create a PDF reader with the capabilities that you want, that works on multiple platforms?  Oh, wait – people have already done that and didn’t make that much money from it….

If you don’t want to learn from history….