Apparently, traditional educational publishers still haven’t learned that the medium is the message.
Yes, the textbook can be digitized and displayed on gadgets that students can carry everywhere. But the iPhone version is painfully limited in its usefulness.
The story details how a San Mateo, CA, firm called CourseSmart is shoveling textbooks onto the iPhone, in cooperation with major educational publishers we know and love:
CourseSmart was founded by five major textbook publishers — Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons and the Bedford, Freeman, Worth Publishing Group — and now has a catalog of more than 7,000 eTextbook titles.
Pushing existing textbook content onto new devices isn’t about education — it’s about passive product management. Shoveling existing content into new media doesn’t take much more than a conversion effort. The message is viewed as being the same, no matter the medium.
In a separate post, Andrew Savikas, preparing for a talk at an upcoming O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, quotes from an exchange he had while preparing:
The bigger issue I see is that thinking of the problem as “how do we get a textbook onto an iPhone” is framing it wrong. The challenge is “how do we use a medium that already shares 3 of our 5 senses — eyes, ears, and a mouth — along with geolocation, color video, and a nearly-always-on Web connection to accomplish the ‘job’ of educating a student.” That’s a much more interesting problem to me than “how do we port 2-page book layouts to a small screen.”
Not aggressively exploring the possibilities of the new medium (in this case, mobile computing) is going to quickly become a story of missed opportunities for these traditional education publishers. While Wiley and McGraw-Hill publish books about how to program iPhone applications and use iPhones, I can’t easily find an iPhone application they’ve actually produced.
The size of the potential missed opportunity is hinted at in a recent post from Alan Cann’s blog, Science of the Invisible, talking about the practice of group assessments in education. He thinks these punish high achievers and let lazy students slide by. Yet when we shovel the same content at students, we’re essentially grouping them. This approach punishes high achievers, as well:
We already give high achievers poor service all the way from secondary through tertiary education. (In primary education most high fliers are able to demand teacher time through force of personality, and if they make it to postgraduate education, they may come into their own again). So personalization seems to be the way forward as the best compromise between efficiency gain in a mass higher education system and serving the interests of individual students.
And now we have devices that allow personalized learning with feedback, real-time assessment, and tons of other options. And the education publishers are still stuck in textbooks?
On this blog, we’ve recently covered the topic of disruptive technologies, and the management trap that incumbent firms find themselves in.
I would venture this: If these education publishers don’t adapt to the opportunities of new media, especially mobile media, they may be using shovelware in a highly symbolic manner — that is, to dig their own graves.
UPDATE (8 Sept 2009, PM): Thanks to a comment from David Crotty, we find this in the Chronicle of Higher Education today, outlining how McGraw-Hill is pursuing interesting new e-textbook solutions based on insights from customers:
Edward H. Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, said in an interview that the new e-textbooks were developed based on an ethnographic investigation of student study habits done by the company. He said the company learned that students often do not study in a linear fashion, but instead jump around in the text, whether in print or electronic textbooks. “One kid in a biology class said, ‘I don’t read the chapter. I just look at the art. If I understand the art, I go on to the next art. If I don’t understand the art, I read,'” said Mr. Stanford. “When he said that, it made perfect sense to me, but until he said it, I had never thought about it that way.”
Seems like minds can change, after all. Good luck, McGraw-Hill, and thanks, David.