Ruminations on eBooks, part 1

I started a new job recently. I am excited to report that it has been fantastic so far. All of my coworkers are nice, my boss is organized and has a clear communication style, and my responsibilities are interesting and varied. Educational technology is a rapidly evolving field, and it has been great to start getting my feet wet.

One of my projects includes researching various eBook solutions. Apple made headlines recently when they released their new iBook authoring software. It was especially noteworthy because they are offering it for¬†free, which seems like a very non-Apple move to me. Of course then it hit me: any books created and sold would be offered through their bookstore, which means they will receive a cut of the purchase price. Not that companies shouldn’t make money… that is an entirely different conversation for another post.

But Apple’s announcement and my subsequent assignment to this research task has led me to ruminate. I guess my first question is simply, what’s the point? In other words, what do they offer that traditional “dead tree” books do not? A few things come to mind immediately: portability, accessibility, searchability, and cost (maybe – one would think that not having to print a book would reduce its cover price). I have never owned a Kindle (though my wife has and enjoys it), but the idea of having hundreds or thousands of books available at the touch of a button seems kind of like living in the future. With text that can be resized or even read aloud, the accessibility options of eBooks seem really useful as well. Are eBooks then simply an alternative delivery device for text?

The Kindle seems to stop there. Sure, eInk screens can render black and white pictures, but so can dead tree books (DTBs). Other Kindles and Nooks now have color screens, but my understanding is that this defeats the purpose of an eInk screen – combating eye fatigue from reading on a computer screen – so how are these devices any different than an iPad or other tablet computer, or just a standard laptop for that matter? Does the reading experience of an iPad beat that of a DTB? Not that I can tell. Then I guess we have to ask the question again – what’s the point?

As I see it, the point is non-text content. Not just pictures, but videos, animations, charts, graphics, and interactive content. Imagine opening up an introductory neuroscience textbook and watching an animation of a synapse after reading about it (full disclosure: my wife is a neuroscientist). Alternately, imagine an interactive map of the United States that leads the reader through the expansion of the railroads or trans-Appalachian settlement. Or an embedded video clip of several experts debating the significance of the Louisiana Purchase in American history after reading of its acquisition? Or any number of things? Harnessing this type of content in addition to text seems obvious.

Perhaps most exciting for me in my academic career is the idea of linking across content. What I mean by this is fairly simple: let’s say you’re reading about President Jefferson’s ideas of political economy (as I have been recently) and a passage in one book reminds you of a passage in another book. What if you could link those two sections together, so that when you access the passage in either book it presents a link to the other passage in the other book? And maybe you could also write a few notes about how you understand the connection. After you had several dozen (or perhaps several hundred) of these linkages, what if you could view those linkages as a sort of map or web of connections between books? Scholars do this all the time in their heads (and in their writing, obviously), but this type of interconnection would, I think, open up a world of possibilities for researches. And then maybe, just maybe, a group of scholars could share their maps or linkages, creating a scholarly map of interconnections? Think of the power of this type of interconnection!

As you can tell, I’m getting excited about this. This post is getting long, so see part two coming soon.

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