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.

Great Blog Post on Riel

8 01 2010

Sean Kheraj, who is teaching a course on Western Canadian history, has posted some great images and video clips related to Louis Riel to his blog.  Check it out!

Sean Kheraj on How the Canadian Media Covered the Signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997

13 12 2009

In a recent blog post, historian Sean Kheraj shows that the Canadian media paid very little attention to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Globe and Mail mentioned it on the front page, but in a little story at the bottom of the page. Apparently, the paper’s editors regarded the Kyoto Protocol as roughly as important as the health of Boris Yeltsin.

Globe and Mail, 11 December 1997

New Nature’s Past Podcast

21 09 2009
Logo of the Nature's Past Podcast

Logo of the Nature's Past Podcast

The ninth episode of  Nature’s Past, the podcast produced by NiCHE, the Network in Canadian History & Environment is now available here. This episode that looks at environmental history graduate studies in Canada.  Previous episodes can be downloaded from the NiCHE website.

The podcaster, Sean Kheraj, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. He has previously written about the environmental history of Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Currently, he is researching a new project on the history of urban animals in Canada.

The monthly Nature’s Past podcasts are a way of keeping abreast of the rapidly growing field of Canadian environmental history.  The podcasts are similar in format to a CBC Radio One documentary and feature interviews with scholars in the field talking about their research. They are designed to appeal to both academic historians and ordinary Canadians who are interested in the environmental history of their country.

Workshop on Writing History for a Mass Audience

14 09 2009

On 19 October 2009, the Network in Canadian History and Environment will be hosting a workshop at the University of Western Ontario for Canadian history graduate students on writing for a popular audience. Graduate students are invited to sign up for this workshop in order enhance their writing skills and develop a proposal for an article to pitch to a newspaper or magazine editor.  There will be a public lecture that evening by MIT’s Harriet Ritvo, president of the American Society of Environmental Historians. Ritvo will be discussing her new book, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism (Chicago University Press, 2009).
If you are interested in participating, please contact Adam Crymble.

I think that this is a wonderful initiative! I was recently looking that the history shelves in my local big-box bookstore and was struck by the paucity of books on Canadian history. There were plenty of books on US, British, and other histories, however. I think that fact so few books on Canadian history are consumed by the public has something to do with fact so many Canadian historians don’t know how to write for a mass audience. Historians such as Sean Wilentz, Simon Schama, Sir Martin Gilbert, Alan Taylor, Linda Colley, and Sir David Cannadine have shown that it is possible to write for a mass audience while still maintaining scholarly rigour. Sadly, few Canadian academic historians have been able to bridge the gap between scholarly and popular historical writing. (One of the few honourable exceptions to this generalization in Western’s Jonathan Vance, whose books do indeed grace the shelves of mainstream bookstores).

Hat tip to Sean Kheraj.