Bill Gates, Custom Textbooks and Rip, Mix, Learn

Tim O’Reilly was chatting with Bill Gates during the recent MIX06 conference and this little comment made me sit up and take notice…

We’ve believed in the idea of getting reading so that you have a device that’s thin enough, light enough, cheap enough, high resolution enough so that you want to read off of the screen, and therefore all the benefits of being able to annotate, remember what you’ve read in the past, have videos and animation in that, so that that just becomes the standard way you do things.

One of the domains that we’re particularly optimistic about is students, where we take textbooks that the teacher could not customize, were not very interactive, could not sort of put the material into different context, and we get that into digital form.

TIM O’REILLY: That’s interesting; I’d love to work with you on that. We have an initiative called Safari U which lets people remix any of the books in Safari for textbooks.

BILL GATES: No, that’s great. Clearly for the teacher to have that flexibility they’ve got to have the right tools, the rights issues can’t stand in the way. But I think, say, ten years from now we’ll look back and say, wow, textbooks, why did we put the money into that, now we’ve got this universal tool that every kid just uses instead….

… emphasis mine.

So customizable, interactive textbooks are on Microsoft’s radar. That’s not surprising.

I think 10 years may be a little pessemistic. Things are moving much faster than that. I keep running into all sorts of indicators that 2007 will be the year of the ebook and the education sector will be leading the way.

I ran across a series of articles from 2003 in the always excellent FirstMonday online journal that give clarity to this idea.

"….Will our thinking be dominated by the conventions and business modelsof print publishing (and the current power relationships amongpublishers, readers, and authors), and by our cultural practices,consumer expectations, legal frameworks and social norms related tobooks, or will we discard these traditions …"

I think the answer is that we will evolve new meaning for online books just like we are evolving new meaning for online newspapers, online classifieds, online commerce, online music and everything else that changes when it goes all digital.

This isn’t all or nothing. A book is just a data format, and a high-level one at that. What’s inside any particular book will determine how it translates into a different digital experience. Not all books are the same (duh!).

When the casebook is all digital it’s amenable to Rip, Mix Learn from both the instructor and the student.

Textbooks or casebooks seem particularly capable of becoming something else in an all digital format. Textbooks track a class and so seem to be dis-aggregate-able into portions of the syllabus of the course. Student notes are just comments to the blog of the book. Faculty lectures are just the podcasts and the slides from the presentation. Course management websites bring these all together, but even these are evolving into more lightweight (blog) interfaces so that they can be made more accessible for busy instructors.

The next year will be very interesting to watch.

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