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.