In response to ‘Streaming eBooks: a New Distribution Model’

April 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

I feel compelled to respond and provide an overview of the situation within the ebook school market and perhaps some wider insight following an article by Beth Bacon  published by Digital Book World, which claimed to report on a new distribution model for streaming ebooks. Certain statements within the article were narrow in their scope, skewing certain viewpoints and promoting a single product without providing other comparisons.

Bacon begins her article by providing a brief summary of the problems she sees schools facing when making decisions about digital materials claiming that there are two problems: school platform woes and school budget realities. Bacon understands platform woes to consist of one distribution model, “one ebook, one device”, and provides an example of this problem in a scenario where a third grader doing a report would need to reference a book on a PC at school, on a tablet in class and on a Mac at home. Bacon continues to illustrate what she sees as school budget realities by saying that the “one ebook, one device” model doesn’t support offering a range of books to students across all topics so that they can follow their interests stating that this then becomes cost prohibitive. The solution that Bacon mentions makes a great sales pitch for StarWalk Kids, a proprietary platform that streams a limited number of backlisted titles.

The ‘platform woes’ Bacon alludes to are certainly real, however, not caused by the “one ebook, one device” as she suggests. By only expanding on the problems associated with one model of distribution, Bacon misleadingly excludes all the other distribution models, which almost all providers are either exploring or have already successfully implemented. The model of providing one copy of a book to one distinct device definitely does exist. For example, both Follett Shelf and the Destiny Library system offer this model of making an ebook available to students on a certain unique device. This does also result in problems. However, Bacon’s example of this culminating in requiring a school to purchase multiple copies of a book to accommodate the child’s various devices is rather ridiculous, and I have not yet heard of a school that would distribute three distinct copies of an individual book to an individual child for various devices. I would rather suggest thinking of this model like giving a child a physical book – a child has one copy and if that copy is left at home, or in a bag, or in the back of the car, the child does not have access to it. The good part of the digital model in this case, not even taking interactivity into consideration, is that, if a device is lost, the ebook is not and can be reassigned to another device.

Bacon is right, if her example was indeed the only model that our schools had with which they could access digital materials, we would not be improving the learning experience, nor would we be making the best use of systems available to us as edtech designers. Using Follett an example again, in addition to the one book per device model, multiple students are able to view a single book at the same time – like a group of students gathered around a single copy of a book, only from the comfort of their own seats. Admittedly, to add an individual’s notes and save highlighting, the book would need to be downloaded to a distinct device, however, for classroom work, the option for multiple students to view materials at the same time does exist and from the same provider. Other providers also offer similar solutions – each with their own caveats- but there are solutions, and none of them are expressly locked to a one ebook, one device model.

The real ‘platform woes’, as I see them, are to be found in the fact that publishers and aggregators are predominantly making their materials available only via proprietary platforms excluding the use of materials from other publishers or any other supplemental materials. There are exceptions to this and we are slowly seeing changes with the implementation of platforms such as ‘Myon, initiated by Capstone, the VLE Books system by Browns Books for Students and Coursesmart in the higher education space, although these are still using proprietary systems.  In my experience, if schools have devices for shared use amongst students (e.g. laptop/tablet trolleys), then schools look at cloud or internet based solutions like online subscriptions. If schools are working on a one to one or BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) system whereby each student has access to or ownership of a device, then having materials assigned specifically to these devices is no problem and is akin to the child having their own set of physical books.

Although Bacon’s next point purportedly deals with school budgeting, I am not sure that ‘realities’ are addressed. I am, for example, at a loss as to how the ‘one ebook, one device’ model reflects the (in)ability to provide students with a proper range of materials. Surely the breadth and extent of a school’s book collection is not solely reliant on a distribution model. I have not yet come across a school that has, for example, limited student access to any of their research databases (EBSCO, JSTOR, Pebblego etc.). As such, I find the supposed correlation between the ‘one ebook, one device model’ and the lack of broad resources tenuous at best. Especially considering access to any of these databases is subscription based and per internet (like any streaming system).

Publishers offer a variety of licensing models for digital titles from single sale to time restricted and school-wide licensing. Where Bacon may be trying to make her point is that the majority of education publishers, like most trade publishers, are not yet sure how to handle the library licensing model of digital book use. This is a real issue and an interesting one to solve and surely what the librarians at the ALA conference Bacon referred to were actually pining for: the ability to have access to the materials that they need from the publishers they use. The systems that are currently in place such as those offered by RM Education with RM Books, Follett ebooks and Overdrive, rely on the provider owning a title and merely directing access to this title as opposed to the schools actually owning and storing content themselves. This is where the real platform problem enters again as most of the providers have to either make this access available through the internet or through their own proprietary file types that, logically, only work within their own proprietary reading systems, excluding the use of any other materials.

But does the solution Bacon proposes in streaming backlisted titles into schools such as by the platform offered by StarWalk Kids truly solve the problems we are experiencing in schools?

  • Firstly, and as I have mentioned before, one of the true problems we are facing in schools lies in the lack of stable internet either in schools or at home for a staggering number of students. I thus question the suitability of a streaming solution for schools where limited bandwidth would not support multiple classes trying to concurrently stream materials. Streaming and other internet-based resources are, unfortunately, not always an option. In my opinion, a solution that could truly support all school scenarios would look at both online and offline capabilities. Thankfully, we may be able to just focus on internet solutions in the near future with groups such as ‘EveryoneOn working on solving the very real connectivity issues schools and families of students are facing.
  • Secondly, considering the fact that titles currently on school reading lists and textbook lists are less likely to appear on a publisher’s backlist, I wonder whether Bacon can truly claim that a service providing such titles is really “building ebook libraries that are both deep and broad”? List development for school collections is a time intensive and detailed process. Just adding resources because they are available doesn’t make them good resources.
  • Finally, the streaming via subscription model is nothing new to the education space. Providers such as tumblebooks (US), and even Espresso(UK) for video content have been giving schools similar services with access to more titles via school-based subscription licenses for years already.

StarWalk Kids sounds like a great idea, a great product and is being led by an impressive team, however, with the limited number of available titles and their use of proprietary software, I wonder at Bacon’s resolution to stand behind this platform as the solution. Even relative newcomer, Tales2go, also working with a streaming subscription model could offer an interesting alternative with integrated reading tools and a much broader collection although still reliant on internet. Certainly, price is a huge incentive for introducing digital materials into the school environment so if affordability is the key issue, we also shouldn’t forget free resources such as the international children’s digital library.

There are many partial solutions all vying for their place within the education space. I feel as though we are inching closer to the change that schools have been desperate to see for years now in a comprehensive solution that gives educators the ability to use the materials they need in the best manner for the students they are teaching. I hope that by providing more accurate representations of the market, we can give educators and parents the best means for making decisions.

You can find Beth Bacon’s original article here

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