Saturday, May 09, 2009


Academic publishing is such a mess, it's hard to know where to start. Academic presses are cliquish and limited in capacity, journals are polluted with "publish or perish" read-only articles but protected behind intellectual property walls created not by the authors but by the publishers, and textbooks....there's a long list there.

Math is easier than some subjects. I try to find out-of-print texts for my students, which have the same benefit at a tenth the price of new books. Dover's softcover catalog is very reasonable too, of course.

Anything that looks like a crack in the existing order of things is interesting to me, so the introduction of an "academic Kindle" from Amazon attracted my attention. There's an article in the Chronicle about its potential use in higher education to serve up e-textbooks.

Electronic books have been around for a long time. When I was directing library operations, I made sure we got in on the ground floor of NetLibrary's electronic collections. It was an amazing opportunity at the time--thousands of titles for a one-time cost of a couple thousand dollars. Over time, this collection has grown to the tens of thousands, and the total investment extremely reasonable. Reading off a computer screen is the disadvantage, but on the other hand it's extremely nice to be able to search a book with a few clicks.

I did not know about CourseSmart, however, until reading the article. This service allows you to buy and download electronic versions of current textbooks, suitable for reading on your laptop. Not for the Kindle, alas, at least not yet. I also wonder about the usefulness of the cute little reader for textbook use. The article touches on that, and after playing with the one I bought my wife for her birthday (the small-screen version two, not the one just announced), I think it's got a ways to go before it can duplicate the usefulness of a paper text or ebook delivered on a powerful browing platorm. Part of the problem is color: it's nice for illustrations, but the Kindle's e-ink is black and white. The rest of the challenge I see is the interface. Reading a novel is quite different from using a textbook. Now if the Kindle had TWO screens like the pages of an open book, and you could point them at different pages, you'd have something. Perhaps a folding model with this feature is in our future. I sliced and pasted an image from Amazon to mock one up below:

Even without color, this would be a leap forward in the electronic textbook capabilities. It's hard to get this kind of visual real estate with a laptop.

One final observation. This generation types with their thumbs. I bet if I googled around, I could find a USB keyboard for a PC that looks like a phone's keypad. That interface will evolve probably to include better chording (use of multiple keys at once to more quickly identify keys) and word prediction. The Kindle's keypad needs to squish in to accomodate this trend. Maybe with a rollout, plug-in keyboard option for the old timers like me...

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