Disruptive Technology Alert

A big news event in higher education being reported today (other than Blackboard acquiring Angel) is Amazon’s release of a new large-screen Kindle device that is specifically designed for the e-textbook market. Amazon organized a news conference and was joined by representatives from several different colleges and universities that will be testing the device to see if it is a more efficient and economical way to deliver textbook content. According to some e-textbook experts the existing Kindle devices were simply incapable of allowing the use of much larger textbooks with graphics, not to mention failing to support students in the ways they want to use their textbooks. Each higher education partner is planning to test the device to see if students accept it and how it impacts their learning.

I’m all for technology that will allow students to get textbooks at affordable prices, though I’m wondering what this new development is going to do to the fledgling open textbook movement where the goal is to offer open access textbooks that students can use electronically on their existing computing devices – no need to buy a $498 Kindle – or choose to publish-on-demand as a low-cost hardbound or DVD version. What alarms me the most about the large-screen Kindle is that a big-time supporter is Adrian Sannier of Arizona State University. You’ll recall he’s the CIO who suggested that all academic libraries could be burned down tomorrow. Sannier already believes all the world’s books have been digitized.

Of course, not all the information technologists at the Amazon news conference were as gung ho as Sannier, but I have to imagine that in our challenging economic times one thing could lead to another and before you know it you’ll have IT leaders encouraging academic administrators to further question the need for academic libraries. Picture this scenario (CIO meeting with the President):

Now that we’ve purchased a large-screen Kindle for all of our students and faculty, why should we bother buying any new books for our library. Let’s take the library’s book and journal budget and give everyone on campus a personal “buy your own” information grant – say $1,000 for students and $2,000 for faculty. Then they can buy any book or journal article they want or need – no more trudging through the library’s musty stacks or waiting for books from other campuses. Not to mention we’ll save a ton on eliminating all the paper students use when they print out reserve readings and journal articles at the library. And here’s the best part. They get to keep their Kindle and all the books when they graduate. Talk about happy alumni. And what if they do need an old book that Amazon isn’t selling? Why the libraries let Google digitize all their old stuff years ago – who needs that library building anyway. Let’s just turn it into a student center – it’s already got the cafe and computer lounge. Or better yet, another computer center.

You can see where this is going. Maybe I’m being a little paranoid here, but you may recall Andy Grove’s popular book, Only the Paranoid Survive. I think he was on to something.

8 thoughts on “Disruptive Technology Alert”

  1. Interesting that some of Sannier’s own constituents at ASU commented on his apparent extremism (and apparent lack of traditional qualifications) in your 2008 post. I’ve heard him on some EDUCAUSE podcasts, and while brash, he didn’t go as far as he seems to have in the last 8-10 months.

    ECAR, Pew and plenty of other data tell me that most students still probably won’t want to read textbooks on a Kindle directly. Outputting the Quark/InDesign book files digitally into a variety of formats that Kindle supports sounds efficient for publishers, but publishers couldn’t get away with charging the same markup on Kindled titles. While there wouldn’t be a used market for Kindled textbooks, I suppose a semester-length rental option might be attractive to some students. I could see a subscription model in which one gets all the texts they need for a fixed price and fixed duration, though there’d need to be some broker/aggregator for multiple publishers or students would have to pay multiple subscriptions to Penguin, Wiley, et al….hello, Amazon?

    And then there’s the insidious clicker issue. At every single monthly faculty senate council meeting I attend, I hear faculty and students complain about the profusion of clickers (classroom response tools) with textbooks. Clickers are one strategy that publishers use to try and kill the used text market–instructors assign the latest edition of the text, and only the latest version of the clicker will work with that edition. You can’t use an earlier edition of the text because it has the wrong clicker. I don’t see a clicker function in Amazon’s current marketing info–will they add one to Kindle?

    Finally, for every CIO like Sannier who questions library expenditures, there are multiple who come out of the faculty and get, nay insist on, the continued importance and relevance of libraries (such as our own CIO here). And, I’d hasten to mention that digitized books aren’t the only thing being offhosted by clouds like Google’s. In Michigan and elsewhere, a growing number of universities are beginning to put their email up in a near or far cloud via Zimbra and other platforms. We could just as well ask who needs another air-conditioned data center on campus when we could offhost enterprise systems such as email and course/learning management systems (not to mention library catalogs–don’t get me started).

    While respecting StevenB’s nod to Andy Grove, Intel and its industry moves and evolves a helluva lot faster than higher education has traditionally. While we should absolutely watch our backs, make our case and stake appropriate claims, here’s hoping we don’t have to be too overly paranoid about rogue CIOs just yet…

  2. I think it’s unfortunate that some people view the Kindle as the solution for the high cost of textbooks. Many students would have difficulty purchasing the $500 device, and there are better long-term options out there that don’t require a specific device. I would love to see the open textbook movement gain momentum, but it seems like reports like this about the Kindle present a seemingly easier option for those who could have the biggest effect on the future of textbooks and other materials.

  3. Laptop ownership is huge on campus but most students leave their laptops where they live and don’t bring to class. (Some obviously do. And of course there are learning commons, but most students are in them.)

    There are some important bits of information not in the announcement that might determine whether they would bring the Kindle if they had one.
    1. Weight. Preferably not more than a paper notebook.
    2. Battery life if always on. Needs to last for at least 12 hours.
    3. Ability to make annotations. The keyboard on the original Kindle is frustrating to use.
    4. It has the content for the courses the students are taking. 🙂
    If all those conditions are satisfied well, I think students will go for it. Right now, a lot of stuff is printed out on paper and that is the portable device. It is an ingrained habit and will be hard to break.

  4. I enjoyed this post and appreciate your pointing out sides to this that many (including myself) may have forgotten or never considered.

    I followed the Kindle announcement closely yesterday and sent the following email out to colleagues:

    “The link below is to Amazon’s page for the Kindle DX. I find the price outrageous. Having said that, I took the full five minutes and watched the video on the page below (scroll down to find). It’s pretty amazing. This device is a trending topic on google and twitter. There are zillions of blog posts and news articles on this. Many talk about the implications for newspapers and textbooks

    http://tinyurl.com/c586lb This NYTimes post of the live event is humorous and informative. http://tinyurl.com/cg2hsk Note the part on textbooks and universities.”

    There really is a tremendous amount of buzz over this device and I think for many good reasons. For some of us it’s less about the device (which I still feel is outrageously expensive). It’s more about what it means for ebooks, and not just etextbooks.

    As the Reference & Distance Services Librarian at my university, I’ve been working hard this past year to find ebook content to purchase. It’s easier and there’s more than there was a year ago, but I’m still surprised by how many books I am not able to order in ebook format.

    The students I serve are primarily graduate and doctoral students and many are enrolled online and in hybrid programs. They live all around the U.S. and a few are in other countries. It’s a challenge and costly to get physical books to those students. And for various reasons we won’t even attempt to get them to students outside of the country. Our undergraduate campus has also seen requests grow from students who want to access ebooks from their dorm rooms when they are doing their research in the middle of the night.

    As online programs continue to grow, the availability of digital academic content becomes more important. Amazon is such a big player, my hope is that the release of this device and others will help cause publishers to realize they must make their content available. As the demand for ebook content rises, and more devices like the Kindle DX hit the market, I have to wonder if the time has finally arrived for academic ebooks (and remember the Kindle iPhone app http://tinyurl.com/bu8fdl is free).

  5. Interesting stuff. For many students, viewing textbooks on a computer screen just doesn’t work, so I’m all for devices like Kindle that will simulate a book-reading experience. However, the thought of eliminating physical libraries is too much of an over-correction. Maybe as lighter laptops are produced, the open textbook option may take hold, but I fear that the desires of the haves to obtain the latest technology will drive the market, and the have-nots will have one more hurdle and barrier to overcome in their pursuit of higher education.

  6. I haven’t gotten to use a Kindle yet – selling this device that’s all about the experience only online is a pig in a poke.
    But if the reading experience for long documents is all it’s cracked up to be – if it’s really that much more pleasant than current computer screens – then that could be good for open textbooks.

    The new Kindle DX actually seems to be better for open content, because it (unlike the old version) reads pdfs. That means that you can download all of your open access journal articles to it. It also still reads plain text, so all of the open source content from sites like Project Gutenberg is an option. All your primary sources for courses like ancient philsophy, 19th Century literature, or US Constitutional law, would all go on the Kindle for free with a USB.

    What this could mean is that the Kindle might obviate the need for print-on-demand, allowing the benefits of open access to work easily for much longer documents.

    Whether $500 is a price we can or should pay for that is a different question, but the device itself doesn’t lock you into proprietary content. If the price drops and it’s something students will actually remember to bring to class, this could be a boon for open textbooks.

  7. I don’t know…. everyone seemed to think that e-reserves would reduce paper consumption, and instead they’ve only turned the library printers into on-demand non-hardbound print stations! And I often have someone ask me if we have a paper copy of an e-book, or if they can borrow one from another library because they don’t want to read a whole book on a computer. I know the Kindle screen is a different technology, but I imagine the objection would still hold. Even with attempts at e-highlighting and e-post-its, we’re talking a significant shift in study technique.

    I’d love it if this were to work, if only for the enormous amount of paper it would potentially save (as long as people don’t simply print it all out again!).

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