I’m taking another professional development course this summer. As in a previous year, there is no textbook. I must say I am delighted that more instructors seem to be thinking beyond the buy-a-textbook model. My one etextbook experience was abysmal, and in the years since, I’ve seen much virtual ink spilled on the question of how to improve them.
Well, maybe the answer is, ‘We don’t improve etextbooks. We replace them with something else.’
In this case, that ‘something else’ is digital access to a library database. It’s almost like Kindle Unlimited for academic articles, in a way. In the Kindle Unlimited model, I can access every byte of the available library, as much as I want to, while I am paying. So it is with Proquest, the library database my university is using. For the duration of the course—while I am paying, in other words—I can get into the whole thing. When I stop paying, I stop accessing.
When articles and book excerpts replace textbook chapters
The textbook chapters, thus, have been replaced by articles and excerpts which are available as part of whatever subscriptions or services the university has subscribed to as part of their library package. The 20-page course syllabus has various tasks we must participate in, most of which involve referencing at least a few suggested readings. These are listed by title, author and Proquest reference code. I go to the library website, log in with my student number and password, and paste the code number from the syllabus PDF into the search bar. Boom, there it is. A few of the tasks also involve us performing research on our own. We can use the library database for these tasks as well, searching by subject or keyword.
I think this is a surprisingly elegant model. Now that I’m doing my ‘work’ on a proper computer instead of on a tablet, it doesn’t bother me to have multiple browser tabs open. It’s easy to fire up the course message board, open a second tab and load the library database. I like not having to buy a paper textbook, and not having to be ripped off by an over-priced and DRM-hobbled digital effort to copy one. I feel that we are getting more current information by not limiting ourselves to one book source, and since these are not free articles we’re using—the university pays for its various subscriptions—nobody is getting cheated out of their fair due here. As long as I am a student, I can use the school’s database. When the course ends, so too does my access. That’s fair.
So, to the question of ‘how can digital textbooks me improved?’ let me offer the answer: they can’t be. They are an inferior experience and probably always will be. But there is no law that says every course must have a textbook, either. Maybe instead of wringing our hands over how to improve the textbook as a tool, we should be exploring other tools and how they might be as, or more, beneficial.
Image credit: Here.
Ah, but for access to those professional article databases, the university is probably paying an arm, a leg, and much of a torso. They’re far from cheap, and they’re one reason why librarians both liked and disliked Google’s huge book copying scheme. They liked all that scanning. (“Free books,” they thought.) They hated the idea that Google would, as a result of that settlement, become their only source of such books. (“Huge subscription rates,” they groused.)
Universities, given their purpose for existing, can grit their teeth and pay those huge fees. You’ll never convince budget-strapped community colleges, high schools, or public libraries that those fees are justified.
I’m also both more pessimestic and optimistic than this remark of yours: “So, to the question of ‘how can digital textbooks me improved?’ let me offer the answer: they can’t be. They are an inferior experience and probably always will be.”
They’re clearly an “inferior experience” as you note. I’ve seen my Kindle break the page to put the last “ly” of a word at the end of a chapter on another page. But there’s no excuse for that. Word processing programs can automatically handle widow and orphan problems like those. All that is needed is for the geeks who write ereader programs to get hammered enough with criticism that they realize, “Hey, maybe those people who’ve been formatting books with mechanical type for hundreds of years know more about making a book look good than we do.”
Ebooks look awful, particularly in more demanding layout situations such as as textbooks, because apparently no one in a decision-making role can think past the webpage model. People scroll through webpages, therefore epub shouldn’t think int terms of pages displayed on screens of varying sizes, just mindlessly reflowing text. That explains that stupid “ly” on a page all by its lonesome on my Kindle. It explains why graphics create such bizarre page breaks, I only put them at the start of chapters in my ebooks.
There’s no reason why ebooks couldn’t look as good or better than their print cousins. Ereaders could intelligently layout books, breaking pages intelligently and placing graphics attractively. Ereaders (and their standards) could allow those doing layout to go still further and specify how a particular graphic is handled.
For instance, the small size of smartphone screens make graphics difficult to place. One fix would be to allow those laying out the book (I do print layout for a living), to specify how a graphic is handled. If large, it could fill the entire next screen. If wider than tall, it could be placed at the top of bottom of the next page. If taller than wide, it could be placed to the left of right of the text on the next page. The result would be graphics that enhance an ebook rather than clutter it because they’re intelligently placed.
To get specific, suppose the book is about Lewis and Clark’s travels westward. Every few pages, there could be a small top-of-the-page map of their current travels. Print books can do that (and need to do it more). Ebooks should be able to do it attractively.
In short, ugly isn’t inherent to ebook design. Ugly is a result of Amazon’s crass obsession with cheap to the exclusion of all else and digital publishing standards groups that, stuck in a webpage box, think that what ebook publishing needs most are ways to insert ads including, I suspect, those horrid auto-start ads that are the curse of web browing.
Imagine you’re reading novel in which two characters decide on a romantic, after-dinner glass of wine. Those setting standards seem unconcerned that the page that’s on looks gosh-awful. Even worse, what they seem to want most is to be able to play an ad for wine like this one within your ebook:
Not a bad ad, but still not something I want interrupting my reading. Books are one of the few areas where we can escape from advertising. We need to keep it that way even it it means paying a bit more for them
And yeah, there are people who’d love to subsidize the cost of digital school textbooks to be able to insert their ads in them.
I get very skeptical whenever I see the imposition of artificial scarcity and the land of textbooks both paper and electronic, is rife with that. Not only are some deserving authors getting their just due but many of the undeserving are also being rewarded and that’s not right.
Take a close look at any textbook however constructed with the question, “How much of this is copyrightable?” The answer will almost always be, “not much.” Facts and concepts are not copyrightable. Only the unique expression of one of these is but how can one uniquely describe Hannibal traversing the Alps? So many have done this before so well.
There be exploiters here.