I have a box of tissues on my desk that’s decorated like a bookshelf. My mother jokingly gave it to me when I started at CALI just in case I started to miss being surrounded by books all day. The thing is, though, I’m still surrounded by books all day. They just all happened to exist digitally within the confines of the computers here at CALI World Headquarters.
Wait wait wait. Hold it right there, Skippy. I know what you’re thinking. But this isn’t a print vs. digital blog post. If it were, I could bring out the usual arguments. Some classic examples:
- DRM free – important for ownership, resale and lending.
- That print book feel and smell.
- Doesn’t require initial purchase of technology that may be soon be obsolete – print lasts 100 + years
- Can be thrown across the room when you disagree with author’s plot choice. (Oh, like I’m the only one that does that.)
- Light-weight and saves storage space.
- Eliminates cost of printing.
- More handicap accessible via changeable font size and lighting
But like I said, I’m not here to debate the merits of print vs digital books. There’s definitely merits to both and non-quantifiable personal preferences that factor in when someone is choosing which to purchase. And until most traditional publishers – both mass market and legal – up their game when it comes to producing ebooks, this debate isn’t going to end any time soon.
So, what is this blog post about? Two things, really. One, the amazing possibilities that ebooks offer, especially in an educational context. And two, that traditional publishers really need to up their game when it comes to ebook production.
When I taught legal research, one of the things that I really tried to do was teach “content, not containers.” So I didn’t teach ALR one week and then Wexis another – electronic and print were integrated as much as possible. That being said, one of the biggest mistakes when looking to consume or produce ebooks is to assume that the content would and should be the same regardless of container. When it comes to ebooks, especially educational ebooks, the content can be greatly enhanced and shaped by the container it is held in.
About five years ago – which is an eternity in Internet time – I saw this video which explains Web 2.0 in a little under 5 minutes. It’s a very accessible video about some techie subjects. Although it’s about Web 2.0, it also touches on some points that can be ascribed to Education 2.0 and ebooks. So, watch it, and then we’ll talk some more.
WASN’T THAT GREAT?
Wikipedia defines a book as “a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together to hinge at one side…. A book produced in electronic format is known as an electronic book (e-book).” However, Elmer Masters – CALI’s Director of Internet Development – clued me into a fun little fact. Ebooks? Are basically mini-webpages.
Instead of being a static collection of text, ebooks can have many of the bells and whistles that webpages do. So think links to explanatory or primary resources. Embedded media like YouTube videos. Jumps around the text. The reading experience has also expanded from just between reader and text to reader, text and shared notes between everyone else reading the text. And, since they don’t have a corporeal form, ebooks can be more easily chopped up and reordered or edited – a chapter from here, a media block from there, and something completely new can all be recombined seamlessly into a new creation. Instead of electronic, the e in ebook should really stand for enhanced.
Which brings us to part two….publishers need to up their game when it comes to ebook production. Actually, that’s not quite entirely accurate, because the current models of ebook production are actually pretty great for publishers. It’s difficult for a consumer to own an ebook – as was demonstrated with the Amazon Kindle 1984 fiasco, you really can only license an ebook and that license can be revoked. On a related note, lack of ownership makes it hard to share ebooks – either by libraries or individuals – and the resale market is killed. This is especially bad for students who rely on textbook resales. Ebooks are are often tied into a proprietary viewing system so that the book can’t be exported – the offerings of a few legal publishers come to mind. And although there are costs associated with creating ebooks, there are some savings that aren’t always being passed on to the consumer, especially when you consider the hardware purchase that’s required on the consumer end.
A more accurate statement would be “consumers really need to start expecting more out of publishers and demand ebooks that don’t have needless restrictions on use.” What are needless restrictions on use? Well, let’s look at a recent entry into the ebook production market: iBook author.
In theory and on the surface, iBook author is an awesome advance for the textbook world. For starters, it’s made by apple. Babies and cats can use iPads, so obviously they’ve got “ease of use” thing down. And it seems dead simple to include more interactive elements than just text in an iBook. However, if you want to view it on something other than an iPad or export it to a file type other than iBook? Yeah, then you have some problems. Oh, and if you want to sell it (and there’s nothing wrong with selling something you invested time in), then you have to use the iBook store and give Apple a cut of your profits. Oh, and even if you want to give it away for free via the iBook store, you have to drop over $100 for an ISBN number. You can give it away on your own website or portal…but it would have to be viewed on an iPad.
And this is going to be the savior of the textbook market? I don’t think so.
So, what does an ideal eBook distributor/publisher do? There’s a meme going around twitter where people proclaim their love of print books and say something like “I’m not tied to an operating system, I can share it with all my friends, I actually own it, there’s nothing like the feel of a book, etc.” Well, aside from the “print book feel,” a ebook should be able to do that. We do it at CALI – our eLangdell creations are free of restrictions on ownership and use. View ‘em on a kindle, view ‘em on an iPad, view ‘em on your desktop. You can even print it out and hug some dead trees to your chest. We really don’t care.
We haven’t solved the easy creation problem, but we’re not trying to develop software that does that. People do the ebook creation at CALI. We use a combination of open source tools (SIGIL, Calibre and Open Office) to transform the MS Word documents that our authors send us into open and free ebooks with links and as many bells and whistles as they want. (I’ll be happy to provide instructions on how to do this – it’s not too hard really.) We also are making the raw material of the books available in as many formats as possible so that people can remix at home if they don’t want to go through us. It’s all part of our commitment to Open Education and showing how technology can enhance legal education.
Ebooks are great. Open ebooks are even better. Ebooks don’t need to be open for them to succeed in education, but if open education is going to succeed, it needs open ebooks.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidortez/