The textbook skeuomorph

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week I finally bought an eReader and it started me thinking, again, about what we gain through having digital materials available to us, how practice in schools, generally speaking, is far behind the technology available, and how the major share of blame for this sits squarely on the shoulders of the education publishing houses who still control the majority of content entering our schools. It started me thinking again about how we need to move away from thinking in antiquated terms when we are dealing with new constructions. Humour me, and let’s rethink how we address ‘the book’ for a moment.


I sometimes get just a little engrossed in what I am reading

I am one of those people who adores books and chooses novels for their amazing smell as much as their bindings and content. I love the texture and flipping pages and finding forgotten notes in margins and forgotten greetings on cover pages. So, after a sleepless transatlantic flight, I did a double take as, nearing landing, the stewardess announced that the crew would be coming through the cabin to remove any rubbish, papers, newspapers or books we wanted to throw away. Maybe it was just my sheer exhaustion, but had she really just said books?

To be fair, there may be a reason certain novels are called ‘trashy’, but it fairly breaks my heart to think that books have been consigned to the fate of the newspaper (old the second it was printed, useless the next day). Sentiment aside, having dealt with hundreds of publishers during the past years, a single truth seems to be keeping us from seeing the real possibilities here:

Digital materials are not books

A skeuomorph is defined as: “an ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques”. Essentially, skeuomorphism is used to make people feel more comfortable and familiar with something entirely new. Books have been a perfect example of this. Not only have we been able to marvel at fake, simulated leather covers and bindings, but  we have also been able to swipe page turns and add bookmarks. I argue that by recreating such a limited medium for devices that have the power and the scope for so much more, we have also limited the inherent value of what we can offer our students and our own expectations of how they should navigate a digital environment. The skeuomorphic textbook wasn’t just created by the user experience and interface designers of the respective technology companies, but is also the product of a long history in the publishing world.

Publishing houses are behemoths of institutions employing so many different people to work on content bundles that predominantly exist in the unit called a ‘book’. Historically, all the cogs within the publishing ecosystem have worked around this base unit of the ‘book’ – Sales commissions, warehouses and shipment productivity, marketing etc are all based on this single unit. Publishing houses are not known for their speed in adopting radical changes. A fact that is not surprising considering the sheer number of decision makers involved in creating one single unit from start to finish. The Internet forced education publishers to implement certain changes like offering web-based platforms. Initially add-on sales, these have increasingly become entire solutions and alternative options to purchasing print materials. The buzzwords ‘blended learning’ stem from the idea of mixing these media types. But access to the web based platforms and databases has generally remained as clumsy as the majority of the outdated systems used to run them. Educators are forced to manage codes and access levels for hundreds of students via a series of unique systems or using email that make it anything but truly easy. So whilst digital materials could be a powerful resource because of their ubiquity and speed of delivery (naturally where internet is available), management of print materials, especially when dealing with more than one provider, is still easier.

The requirements from education boards and ministries for using technology in the classroom and enabling students to learn with new tools sent the traditional publishing houses scrambling to change. Understanding this need for digital materials, publishers did the fastest pivot they could, making the ‘book’ available digitally – as a static .pdf copy of the text they would otherwise send to print. Suddenly publishers could claim they were had a digital offering of hundreds of books! Slightly more flexible ePub and HTML versions of exactly the same texts followed with pricing being set as high as the print versions. Yes, margins on textbooks are ridiculous, but publishers simply had no idea how to make enough revenue from the same product they had been offering in a print version. Print bindings would die after a certain number of years and digital copies were indestructible, wouldn’t get lost and could be updated without requiring a new purchase. It is understandable; at hundreds of dollars for each book and related resources, there is no wonder the industry is worried about losing money when it can’t fall back on the claim that they need to cover print, production and shipping costs. Subscription models, offering the books for a certain, restricted time period, try and ameliorate this loss.

What came next in the digital textbook image shuffle, though, was yet another organic progression from the baseline of the book – the “interactive eBook”. At a point where we could have been embracing the full extent of all that we have available to us regarding design and capabilities of the machines we are introducing to our education institutions, the publishers instead ran back to the safety net of the book that their entire business was built around. Single ‘book’ applications started appearing. Essentially, however, these were just reworked versions of the epub files with the content in the same order, still split into chapters, following the exact style and flow of their print media counterparts and only minimally using the technology of their chosen platforms. The interactive component was simple: Videos set at intervals within the text, quizzes in the same format as the print version being able to be entered within the application and other small tools. Suddenly publishers had a great solution: they could recycle content whilst supporting institutions in achieving the loosely defined goals of implementing technology in education by repackaging exactly the same data in the same general format and adding minimal extra tools (which initially also meant the app was too large to easily install more than single chapters and crashed regularly).

A great example of one of these solutions can be found in HMH’s Fuse applications. The initial product was a Math series and related resources by Dr. Burger (Burger Math). What followed was one of the initial applications launched during the apple education announcement in 2012. In the case of Fuse, HMH even produced a second app – HMH Math on the Spot. This reuses all of the video content made for the Fuse app and repackages it, I presume aiming to slowly replace the DVD-ROM component of video content most publishers are still trying to sell.  At 1.99 USD per ‘chapter’ for just the video content in the app compared to 44.99 USD for the entire Fuse App (Let’s not get into price fixing at this juncture, but this is a far cry from the 14.99 USD announced together with Apple)  or 80.10 USD for the print Student Edition and 118.60 USD for the teacher edition (which doesn’t include any of the additional resources), I am not entirely convinced anyone here really wins.  I do completely understand the need for us to bridge a gap with both print and digital media while so many students do not have access to stable internet or devices. Furthermore, it is great that, in this case, the initial investment made in acquiring content for the HMH print book series has been leveraged so that they can make the most of 6 distinct products (print, pdf, epub, interactive eBook, video application and web platform).  I find it frustrating, however, that we still seem to be so confined by the notion of the book as a unit that little has been done but changing the format of the same content bundle.

With such a wealth of pedagogically sound content available to them, I wonder whether it is product of their own skeuomorphism that publishers are not thinking outside the restrictive four walls of their book-box. Surely we could have listened to educators who are increasingly needing to tailor their lessons and teaching materials to their students individually and are used to gleaning resources from multiple locations to create their own searchable databases (e.g. Evernote). I also completely understand that this kind of model raises difficult questions for publishers regarding pricing of content and size of content packages. There have, though, been a number of forays into different re-imaginings of textbook sales already. For example, although still maintaining the skeuomorph despite being innovative, books by chapter (e.g. inkling), with improved, intuitive study features (e.g. Kno), and from a customisable grouping of available materials for print on demand or digitally  (McGraw Hill Ryerson’s iLit platform). We have also seen applications like the Virtual History apps appear making use of transmedia learning tools and embedding the materials in an autonomously driven environment or like noseycrow as they develop their targeted interaction components of stories. However, generally speaking, the technology driven changes are still being constrained by companies whose entire outlook has been dictated by ensuring they maximize the sale on the initial content investment and their dogged determination to hold onto the book as a unit of sale applicable to all platforms instead of just the one it belongs to – print media.

Essentially, the rapid development of our available technology means that we have the ability to entirely rethink the ‘book’ and provide students with rich, transmedia materials that not only speak to their individual learning needs and strengths, but also make full use of all learning possibilities. At the digital minds conference in London two years ago, publishers discussed bringing on gamers instead of authors to help produce their materials for children. Game developers were good story tellers and thought outside the box with regard to how technology could be used. An example was given of a print author coming and saying they had developed an interactive eBook: it had a moon that you could move from one side of the screen to the other. This led to the publishers saying that certain stories were simply meant to be told through the medium of the book, with double spread pages and gorgeous designs, and some lent themselves to the full exploratory value of technology.

I feel as though traditional education publishing houses are just starting to move their moons across the pages and I hope so much that they can use the investment of their content but also the full extent of the opportunities to support learning that the technology affords them. I am not suggesting educational publishers suddenly exclusively hire teams of gamers, but I do truly hope that they dare to leap into possibilities instead of trying to merely convert file types so they can keep working within the confining covers of the ‘book’. I hope that this in turn starts the development of something that paves a more innovative path towards discovery and learning.

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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