Textbooks in the Ipad Age

28 06 2010

Should paper textbooks be replaced with e-books suitable for Ipad? Some historians appear to think so. Check out historian Sean Kheraj’s new blog post on the subject.

Dr. Sean Kheraj of UBC

I like some aspects of this idea. A digital textbook on Ipad can include cool moving images like this:

The relevance of animated maps to the teaching of history hardly needs additional comment.

Moreover, digital textbooks _might_ be a way of reducing the costs of textbooks, which is currently way too high. However, the savings to students from going paperless might be outweighed by the costs of new technologies is everyone has to invest in Ipads or other electronic readers.

As well, I can sniff a conspiracy of textbook companies here. Textbook publishers are notorious for issuing new editions of core textbooks in quick succession in order to sabotage the development of a secondary market. This is a big problem in economics and chemistry courses. The discipline of chemistry doesn’t change that quickly, so students ideally should be able to save money by purchasing versions of the course textbook published a few years back. However, some courses are designed around the newest version of each textbook, which forces the students to buy a new book. This is planned obsolescence at its worst.

Ok, this ad from 1958 isn't for a GM product, but you get the idea

It reminds me to a General Motors in the days of Alfred P. Sloan– each year there were lots of superficial changes to the cars designed to encourage people to sell last year’s model.

A typical university bookstore-- scene of a thousand fleecings

In the Canadian history survey course I teach, I use a textbook called Origins : Canadian history to Confederation by R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones, Donald B. Smith,   6th ed. (Toronto : Nelson Education, 2009). On the first day of class, I urge the students to try to buy used copies of this book, either online or from someone on campus. I also tell that it is ok if they buy the 5th edition, which came out in 2004. When I give weekly textbook readings in the course outline, I give relevant page numbers for both editions of the book. I’m certain the publishing company would prefer it if I told my students to only use the 6th edition and to buy only new copies, but I understand that they need to save cash. There isn’t a big difference between the 5th and the 6th editions.

One problem with switching over from hard-copy textbooks to books on Ipad is that it will kill off the secondary market. When I pay to download a song to my Ipod, I am buying a bundle of rights I can’t resell. Textbooks and digital rights management will allow textbook companies to do what they have always dreamed of doing– shutting down the secondary market.

The textbooks on Kindle project at Princeton flopped. Let’s keep in mind that Princeton is a rich American university, where people tend to have more money for technological experimentation than they would at a typical Canadian university.

Another potential pitfall is this– looking at a computer screen for too long is hard on the eyes. I’m told that the Ipad is different that it is less painful to look at for extended period, but until I’m convinced of this I won’t be investing in an Ipad. If I could rent an Ipad for 24 hours I might be willing to experiment with the technology, but spending $500 on something that might hurt my eyes is simply too expensive.