Week 11: OERs – The future of text as we know it

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba. Our instructor has asked us:

Apple recently announced the iBooks 2 – an app that collaborates with major textbook publishers to release books on the apple device. See the YouTube video of someones excitement about this. The Huffington Post’s report suggest books will cost $15. How long do you think it will take for books to become available at the college level? Is this an initiative you will encourage in your schools or business? Do you think Apple will succeed in pushing traditional textbooks out of the market?

Books have long followed a model of depth and linearity.  Consider the scroll – a long sheet of continuous paper that is rolled from one spindle onto another as you read the text from the top of the sheet all the way down to the bottom. This provided a simple and sequential approach to reading information.  At some time in history, technology moved onwards to the book format, which broke the physical linearity of the text from the scroll, to virtual linearity by allowing text to continue on the page adjacent in a repeating fashion.  Some clever people using their imagination have given a popular comical portrayal of what the transition was like from scroll to book as shown below with the youtube video titled “Medieval Helpdesk”.

Our technological sophistication marches forward as we continue to refine and improve ways of being knowledgeable.  Going from an analogue device such as a hardcopy book to a digital device such as a tablet is no great leap, and has been attempted many times in the past by various innovators.  So Apple’s new iBook software in conjunction with their iPad technology should come as no surprise. But will Apple succeed in pushing traditional textbooks out of the market?  My answer is “if not Apple, then someone else will.”  In my estimation, the traditional hardcopy book will be a relic – an artefact of history in the future anywhere from 5 to 50 years from now, just as man moved on from the scroll to the book.  I also predict that many people – particularly the older generations will initially struggle with this transition, just as our medieval friend depicted in the youtube video.

My reason for lack of confidence in Apple being the “pusher” is one of interoperability.  Apple are renown for “vendor lock-in”.  Their marketing spin is that they are innovative and ahead of the pack, and that their tight integration between software and hardware provides a better and more reliable “user experience”.  While these statements may to be true in some of their ventures, it also smells of anti-competitive behaviour and market control.  Afterall, they are a company whose sole purpose is to make money for its shareholders, not further mankind’s quest for knowledge and enlightenment.  This political viewpoint aside, the upshot is unless all your readership (students and faculty for instance) have and use Apple iPads, then committing to a service such as Apple’s is simply not “open”.  Emerging standards in electronic publications will help to ensure interoperability such that you can use any device, much like the World Wide Web standards, but it will take time for these to evolve and mature into a stable publishing platform.  Which brings me to my next point.

What I find interesting is that even with the move to electronic publications, we are still tethered to the concept of a depth-wise linear body of work with this new technology.  This is in contrast to the World Wide Web which is a distributed non-linear publishing system. I do understand that the tablet computers can do non-linear things, but I bet for the mostpart, people who create content don’t use this – at least initially.

I have heard many decry the loss of depth in writing with the popularity of the WWW.  Modern society sets an incredibly high pace, and I wonder if this is simply a sign of a new era of enlightenment.  We live in an incredibly complex world with technology that requires very specialist knowledge to develop and maintain.  Typically no one person knows everything about something because it is so complex.  Think about your car for a moment, and how they have evolved over the past 20 to 30 years.  Once upon a time you could do most of the maintenance yourself, but these days even mechanics plug the car into a computer to find out what is wrong with it using software and hardware developed by someone else.  So we use layers of abstraction or black box approaches to break the complexity down into smaller consumable pieces.  Depth has been subsumed by breadth of knowledge – knowing enough about something to get on with what needs to be done.  I’m not suggesting that writing no longer requires any depth.  I am saying that there has been a shift of priorities that means for the masses access to quick high-level rapidly changing information is in greater demand.

Of course I hope there will always be a need for linear formats for creative bodies of work such as novels – digital or analogue. 🙂

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