“Text” Books in a (higher) education environment.

Text books (is this a misnomer, much like “papers” are in journals?) in a higher-educational chemistry environment, I feel, are at a cross-roads. What happens next?

Faced with the ever-increasing costs of course texts, the department where I teach introduced a book-bundle about five years ago. The bundle included all the recommended texts for an appreciable discount over individual purchase. In their first week at Uni, students were encouraged to acquire the bundle. As it happened, I met them for a tutorial shortly after this acquisition. The bundle weighed some 9 kg, and came shrink-wrapped into a strapless plastic sheath, posing a rather slippery and weighty challenge for the student to get back to their residency. A few months later, I asked the students how they were getting on reading their newly acquired texts. You must appreciate that it does take a few months for students to start getting “street-wise” about their uni experience. One savvy student recounted they had learnt that if one did not remove the plastic outer layer from the bundle, it would retain much of its resale value to the next generation of incoming students.

Now, I will not mention the publisher of this particular bundle, but its cost is in the region of £50 per text. And for some students, the 1500 or so pages of each volume remain largely unread. Rarely if ever do I see these texts brought into tutorials, and I expect the margins remain blank, un-annotated with any questions or notes (it affects the resale value if you do that). Which is a stark contrast to how the students nowadays annotate their lecture note hand-outs often (but not invariably) issued to them at the start of a lecture. I also observe that increasingly my tutorials are effectively annotated by the students attending (2-4 pages of notes can be taken during a 50 minute discussion. The unit can be declared as pages, since this is also done on paper).

Despite these trends, pedagogic usage of tablet devices such as Kindles and iPads remains relatively low. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. The aforementioned book bundle is not available for these devices, and if it were, then in the current business model, it would be DRM (digital-rights-management) protected to prevent resale, and would also probably retain (if not exceed) the cost of the printed version. Hardly attractive to a student. The lecture notes we distribute (as printed handouts) do indeed come as PDF versions which can be placed on a mobile tablet, but this advantage alone has not sufficed to promote rapid uptake of tablet here. Few materials are specifically optimised to take advantage of the unique features of a tablet, and so the printed lecture notes are considered acceptable. Perhaps this comes to the core of what such tablets are supposed to be. Are they devices for “content consumption”, or should we also expect them to be capable of “content creation”? Lecture (and tutorial) annotation is of course content creation (or perhaps augmentation). 

I might also take a look at the situation from the point of view of the textbook author. Unless you are a big name, you might expect to redeem about 10% royalties from one of the traditional publishers of academic texts. It might take you a year or so to write it, and you would expect to issue a further edition five years down the line if the book is successful. Two generations ago, every academic might be expected to write at least one book. I suspect that aspect has reduced nowadays; authors can hardly be encouraged to write if they think there is a prospect that the shrink-wrapping might not even be removed! If you are intending to write a text about, lets say stereochemistry, you also have to accept the 2D limitations of a printed book, or the inability to say animate a reaction path.

Where are these thoughts leading? Well, I do have to give an explicit example; Steve Jobs’ vision of the educational text-book, re-invented along the lines of what he famously introduced for music distribution. There, he recognised that the (presumed illegal) sharing of music via download sites that preceded the iTunes store was not a sustainable model. The $.99 download was conspicuously cheaper than the price of a physical music CD (excepting classical music, which did become absurdly cheap in this form), and a compromise on sharing stipulated only on devices owned by you rather than more widely amongst your friends. The same model was introduced for the iBook store. Here, the author of an eBook (I am no longer calling it a textbook) can if they wish retain 70% of whatever income it generates (it can also be free of course). The unit price was a fraction of the traditional paper-based book, low enough that the DRM-imposed inability to resell it was less of an issue.

What are the downsides of moving on from paper?

  1. Well, unlike a paper book which is instantly useable, the reader has to purchase a device. This device can cost more than the book bundle referred to above, although at its cheapest, the device is actually only about half the cost of the book bundle. And one might expect that device to last only 2-4 years before it becomes obsolete.
  2. It can be lost or damaged, although unlike a paper book, the online content can be readily restored at zero cost .
  3. If you purchase an eBook for one (proprietary) device, you cannot transfer it to another such device (say Kindle to iPad or vice versa), although if the content is free, that would not matter.
  4. Authors of such texts will have to retrain themselves to produce ebooks; it is not just a matter of using a standard word processor any more. I suspect writing/imaging/styling/scripting/widgeting (a verb for this collective process is needed; how about to flow?) an ebook takes a lot longer than word processing a text-book.
  5. You might have to consider the ongoing cost of using an ebook. By this I mean the data-plan that you might need in place to download components which are not actually part of the book (see below).

The upsides? Well, rather than my producing a list at this point, you might want to take a look at the first two examples below, both created by Bob Hanson, and think about how such inclusion in an ebook might enhance it:

  1. A device-sensitive page for display (try this out on an iPad or Android tablet; the Kindle might be more of a challenge).
  2. A page for building and minimising a molecular model
  3. This example is included, since it belongs to a chemistry text book, but actually would exist on a mobile device in functional form, if not actually a component of an ebook.

So an ebook becomes an environment where you can download a model from public databases, and annotate it with properties etc. Or you could use your ebook to build a model from scratch, then minimise its (molecular mechanics) energy, to say explore conformational analysis in the context of a chapter on the topic.

Well, at the start I posed the question what happens next? The two above examples give possible answers. An equally interesting question might then be who makes it happen? Will that be the evolutionary role of the traditional publishing houses? Will a new generation of skilful author capable of “flowing” an ebook emerge? Will students instead favour retaining their dependency on paper? Watch this space.

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3 Responses to “
“Text” Books in a (higher) education environment.

  1. […] Henry Rzepa Chemistry with a twist « “Text” Books in a (higher) education environment. […]

  2. Ian Kirker says:

    On the subject of brieze block-sized undergraduate textbooks, I personally found that the material presented in lectures wasn’t presented in a way that made linking up with textbooks either easy or productive, with the methodology appearing to be “We have recommended you these textbooks. We’re not going to tell you what to do with them.” I can understand this is a product of a selective curriculum and producing teaching materials from “acquired knowledge”, but references to specific parts of textbooks would have probably been helpful, rather than a seeming instruction to read them from cover to cover and then try to link this up with course material. (I don’t know if this is what was actually intended. In either case, it doesn’t seem like the best approach.)

    Also, I’m not entirely where I’ve picked this up, but I and many others I’ve talked to about this seem to have a irrational taboo against writing in/on books – not because of the resale value as you mentioned, but because “they’re books, and you don’t write on books”. Which I suppose is good if you’re a librarian or have a vested interest in Post-It notes, but less so if you’re a student.

    Like, I suspect, many others, I’ve tried to use my Kindle for reading papers and other PDF-based material in my postgrad time, but found it a little too slow and not exactly ideally formatted for the screen size (though perhaps the latter factor would be alleviated with a Kindle DX). I’d rather like to see publishers start offering at least one eBook format as well as PDF, but then I’d also rather like to see more publishers using Unicode instead of little pictures for non-ASCII characters on their “formatted HTML” papers. Sharable marginalia would be a nice side-benefit, too.

    Notes-wise, I honestly think that one of the better investments a student could make right now would be a scanner with a document-feeder.

    On the subject of eTextBooks, one of the things I find rather remarkable are Wiley’s apparent thoughts on eBooks: take a look at the pricing of a book you probably already have, Jensen’s “Introduction to Computational Chemistry”, 2nd edition. The softcover book will set you back £40 – not terrible for an academic textbook. The hardback, for which I imagine there is considerably less demand and thus will have an expensively short print run and require storage, runs at £135. The PDF, which costs nothing to manufacture or store (assuming it is exactly the same in content as the print-format for the other two versions), costs £110, and is DRM-locked using Adobe’s Digital Editions software, with some rather harsh restrictions on use.

    I guess they’re pretty paranoid about their student-level books getting onto the torrent sites.

  3. Henry Rzepa says:

    You make the powerful point that the additional production costs of a simple PDF version of a book are absolutely minuscule, and yet it costs almost the same as a hardback, and almost three times the softcover. It really is difficult to see how such a business model can possibly survive.

    Again, remember how the music industry really did want the punters purchasing an entire CD, even if the listener only wanted one or two tracks. OK, a lot of albums in iTunes are still indivisible, but lots of tracks can be purchased individually. One is starting to see ebooks chopped up in this way into eg chapters, but if you add up the cost of all the chapters the cost is still enormous. And the author only gets 10% of this enormous cost.

    You also make the point about notes in the margins. Whilst this does not destroy an e-book, I do not think a good metaphor for e-annotation is yet available. One can add voice notes for example, but imagine 100+ students all trying to do that at once. And tablets are not that good at typing; I guess all the students would have to add a detachable keyboard. But I see these as just temporary issues. Inkling is one new publisher who goes one step further. Much like Twitter/Facebook etc, students could share their annotations with peer groups,or even tutors.

    I cannot help conclude that the momentum towards asking “what are publishers for?” (what value do they add?) is growing. Perhaps the combination author/group sourced sharing (think open street map for maps for example) really does not include a conventional publisher in the flow!

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