The future of textbooks (as seen through the eyes of students)

For the final project of the Core Interaction Studio course I teach at Parsons, I challenged my screenaged design students to re-imagine the textbook for the digital, networked age.

Here are some questions/observations that came out of the 2 month-long process:

How does the next generation value print?
If I can extrapolate, print is not dead or dying to these 19-20 year olds. It’s just less of a commodity and more a luxury. For the most part they are sensitive to killing trees and at the same time intuitively aware of the power of print. Also, they see online publishing for what it is: fast, cheap, and hard to control.

Should textbooks be apps or will they be housed in a standalone device? Or a web service?
Half of the students cast their lot with an existing platform (be it the iPad or the Web), and the other half felt the need to create their own, coincidentally reflecting the current e-reader market dynamic (Kindle/Nook vs Apple). (Strangely, Android didn’t even register.) Incidentally, 3 out of 18 students came with their own iPads, up from 0 last semester.

One group suggested a cloud-based Netflix-like subscription service called ShelfLife, which, for a $9.99 monthly fee, gives you access to ostensibly any book you’d need for your classes, synced and delivered to any of your devices. While in my mind they didn’t put enough thought into the “Now what?” question (ie, the reading and studying experience) it does play out an interesting position, a thought experiment also taken up by Tim Carmody in his post for kottke.org, A Budget for Babel. How much would you pay for digital access to every book ever published?

Transposing the Netflix UI to books makes some sense on the surface (access to a huge catalog of content) but the consumption of books is a far different animal than movies.

Prototype website for ShelfLife, a book subscription service

The curious appeal of dual screens
Long live the Courier! I’ll admit, I was a big fan of Microsoft’s vaporware concept tablet, but the prevailing form factor these days seems to be a single screen tablet. That didn’t stop The Owl team from making an intriguing argument for a two-screen, wood-paneled device.

The spine hinges so it can fold into single screen, one-handed mode

If you see a stylus, they blew it. Or did they?
One of our guest critics, David Brown, Editor at Melcher Media who was responsible for bringing the highly acclaimed Our Choice iOS app to fruition (oh, and also the dead tree book too), raised a key point about how we put content in being just as important as the quality or experience of getting content out. This is especially true of textbooks, which expect to be marked up and highlighted by their owners. And to that point we get into the argument still being had about stylus versus the good ol’ finger. Of the three iPad owners in the class, two owned styli, which went against Steve Jobs’ famous aphorism, who, when asked about other tablet platforms, remarked: “If you see a stylus, they blew it”. My theory is that in order to do any detail work (like drawing or adjusting Bezier splines) you need something with more precision than your fat 30px finger. The other argument for a stylus is more psychological, and it has to do with how note-taking and doodling engages our memory. The Owl Team included a stylus (in addition to responding to touch) which was thoughtfully chiseled to provide two different surfaces for mark-making — the sharp point for detail and a rounded long edge for highlighting. Nice touch.

Open or closed?
There was some debate as to whether the textbook of tomorrow should have internet access via a full browser. The Closed camp argued that the world is already too distracting and including access to the web would inevitably lead to a social media death spiral and no homework would get done. Who knew Generation Next was fully cognizant of how Twitter and Facebook are making them stupid? Does that mean these kids are actually more media savvy than the Executive Editor of the New York Times?

The Open camp argued the Web is ubiquitous anyways, to the point where it’s natural to want to Google a word or phrase you don’t know (instead of hoping that your built-in dictionary is any good) and not having that ability built in would be a huge omission. Google (and by extension, the Internet) has become a necessary context for information consumption.

Of course, once you open the floodgates to the entire Web, you will have to tolerate students checking their Facebook feeds in class (which I have actually tolerated grudgingly). I can only comfort myself by thinking this will prepare them for, say, all of the liveblogging they will need to do in the future.

A final thought about accessibility
If it feels wrong to expect students to pay $1000 a year in order to just participate in class, how fair will it be to require everyone to buy a Kindle/iPad/Owl? Though if Kevin Kelly is right, it’s not inconceivable that every student could be issued a Kindle for free at the beginning of the year. Chances are it’ll have ads, but hopefully they’ll just be ads for other books (and not, say, soda).

There’s also a clever piece of SciFi in the Owl group’s website that addresses this issue:

How can I order The Owl?

Under the Accessible Education Act of 2011, The Owl became the primary device available to students and teachers through federal funding. At the beginning of the school year, unique identification codes are distributed to schools and/or individual users, allowing them to place their orders for The Owl as a group, or as a single user.

(NB: There is much more to see and talk about from my class’ final projects. I just don’t have the time or room here. Thanks to Charis Poon, Zeke Shore and Lev Kanter of Type/Code, David Brown of Melcher Media for generously serving as last-minute guest critics.)

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