Five Things

Another Sunday, another five things to quickly run through. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at a number of textbook publishing products that are sold to schools around the world in an effort to understand what sort of features schools are using, and which ones are seeing successes with teachers and students. Interestingly, there are three rather large companies doing this based on South Korea, and a handful spread out across the rest of the planet. One vendor recently wrote a blog post about the academic book experience and had this to say:

The academic world is facing a problem but not everyone acknowledges that, including ourselves. Not until we were invited to participate in a workshop for university institutions (Columbia, NYU, MIT, University of Michigan) with press and library representatives attending as well. […] During the workshop, the large issue that was discussed is the lack of a simple yet effective user experience (UX) for users that are not only students, but alumni and faculty members.

This is certainly true. There are some companies who are trying to use HTML and PDFs with mixed results, but many are relying on proprietary formats that simply do not translate well. While this is convenient for the software vendor, it’s rather frustrating for everyone else. Not only do educational institutions need to accept vendor lock-in, but there’s a very real possibility that teachers and students will need to have multiple accounts with multiple textbook suppliers requiring multiple applications with different design language just to get through a regular school day.

This isn’t at all cool.

In order to make something that works for the institutions charged with educating people, we need to ensure that the software works for people. Fortunately, there are a few things that would go a long way to improving the situation with our digital textbooks … and learning materials in general.

A Common Format

Every format will be an exercise in compromise, but the most logical format for a textbook is HTML. This is a standard that people have been using for decades and will continue to persist in the foreseeable future. Just about everything a person might want to do can be done in HTML though, admittedly, it is not the best format for every situation.

A Core Set of Features for Students

Every digital textbook publisher seems to have a different way of presenting materials to students. Some do little more than present a PDF in a wrapper that prevents text selection, printing, writing comments, and just about anything that would aid a person’s learning. Others, like National Geographic, over-engineer their textbooks in an effort to make them “immersive” for the handful of people who have the latest and greatest hardware. Between these two extremes are all the other vendors who try to offer schools enough shine and pizazz to justify the expensive support contracts and vendor lock in.

Ultimately the needs of the students must come before those of the school. This includes basics like being able to print pages without “page credits” or other asinine forms of friction1, writing notes “in the margins”, links to additional resources to expand on or reinforce a topic, and — depending on the topic — a way to ask questions or for further help should be part of every delivery platform.

A Core Set of Features for Teachers

This is a problem near and dear to me despite the lack of formal teaching in my day-to-day work now. Having been in the classroom for nine years I’ve seen systems that work well and systems that do not. This is true for both analog and digital content targeted at teachers. The one pattern that I’ve seen with systems that do not work is that they’re all based on rigid, theoretical models of teaching that generally work only with a certain kind of student. Rarely will any class go completely by-the-book. Teachers support tools need to be flexible, while also being consistent.

This is where a core set of features that are standard across all platforms, even if the implementation is different, can help teachers get the most from their learning tools. Built-in glossaries, alternative lesson plans, and additional presentation materials are just a couple of items that would generate interest from teachers, even if only a subset regularly uses them.

The Option to Self-Host the Textbooks

A valid concern that schools have is what to do if the publisher goes out of business or upgrades their infrastructure without supporting older versions of their software. One of the benefits of paper books is that once you have it, it’s yours. Digital materials have long been touted as being superior to their analog counterparts but, as we’ve seen with book distribution systems like eReader2, there are serious questions about the long-term viability of systems hosted by external entities. For this reason, it should be possible for organizations — or even individuals — to host their own content server that interacts with the application(s) used to read the materials.

A Browser-Based Option

The problem with platform-specific applications is that they typically focus on the main operating systems being used in wealthier nations. While there is some utility in having a textbook in a dedicated or platform-specific app, there should always be the option to view a personal copy of a textbook in any browser. This will also help some people get around the problem of “not having their book” because a battery died. Of course, if the textbooks are offered in HTML format, this will be easily accomplished. If there’s a custom format, some loss of functionality might take place during the conversion.

There’s a lot of really interesting ideas in the various textbook systems, but many seem focused on making things easier for the publisher at the expense of everyone else. Given the publishers are not supposed to be the “customers” of the software, this seems backwards. Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people working on making these tools better for everyone.

  1. Yeah, yeah. Intellectual property, blah blah blah. Get out of here. The students who can’t or won’t afford a textbook will get their hands on it one way or another. Stop penalizing the 99% of people who are just trying to study.

  2. This used to be called Peanut Press and was a great way to buy and read books back when the Palm PDA ruled mobile computing. Now the DRMed files will never “legally” unlock again because the entire DRM system disappeared with the company many years ago.