The President of McGraw-Hill Higher Ed Wants a Complete Transition to Ebooks by 2015: Is He a Visionary or Just High?
That’s a long title, sorry. I’m also sorry for taking a School of Doubt sabbatical with a couple of snow days and some personal time combined with a bit of sick leave. But I am back with you now, doubters! Shall we do some doubting together?
It was August 2012, and Brian Kibby, the President of McGraw-Hill’s higher education textbook division, said this astonishing thing:
As I see it, the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems. Aside from the college library, you hopefully won’t be able to find a printed textbook on a college campus in three years. And if you are, we should all be disappointed.
And everyone was, like, “whoa, dude!” because whoa, right? Let me set up my position on the whole digital thing in the interest of full disclosure: I love progress and progressive thinking, and I LOVE technology, including my Kindles. I have a DX and a Fire, the latter for reading at home and the former to take along when travel situations will keep me from a charger for long periods, like a cruise or international flight. Many of my English teacher brethren wax poetic over the printed book, composing encomiums to the smell of dusty pages and the cracking of stiff spines and crying lamentations over the invasion of cold, lifeless, digital invaders. I don’t feel that way, personally. Don’t get me wrong–books are great. I have a houseful, always have. But the important part is the text, and the knowledge and experience created by merging your consciousness with that text. What difference does it really make what you’re holding in your hand as the delivery vehicle for that experience? I read a lot, and I just don’t see the difference.
So Kibby kind of has me at hello, but I think he also is right about this:
There are a few reasons why I think we haven’t seen greater uptake. For one, education is a high-stakes endeavor for students, with important outcomes riding on it. While students may be willing to switch to digital in some aspects of their lives, when it comes to studying, they often want to stick with what they know. There’s also the fact that until recently, the user experience offered by e-books and other digital technology just hasn’t been very good. A glorified PDF of a printed page is not compelling to students.
Kibby certainly seems to understand his main hurdles: simple human resistance to change, fueled in part by our tendency to romanticize old things, plus a medium that has not yet suited itself to academic needs. Indeed, the only corner of my world that necessitates printed text anymore is research. Unfortunately, I spend a significant amount of my reading time on research and course prep, so even my Kindle-championing ass still buys lots of books and print lots of academic articles, because I can’t engage on a research level without producing copious marginalia. Similarly, it’s lovely that so many peer reviewed journals have transitioned to online formats, but if I use an article in my research I have to print it so I can annotate it.
Moreover, academics don’t generally read scholarly books cover to cover like novels. We skim and flip around and read the beginnings of chapters and the ends of chapters and then go back to read certain parts in more depth later. This is harder to do without pages.
The answer, of course, is a revolution in digital textbooks that makes the digital experience more like the print experience without the high cost of printed books or their crippling weight in your backpack. Kibby acknowledges this, which is encouraging, but I’m still not sure what those texts will look like, and I’m not convinced he is either. I mean, I have a Windows 8 tablet PC on which I can use a stylus pretty effectively, but still not as comfortably as a pen on paper. I’m confident that the technology will prevail eventually–and I’m super excited by the idea–but 2015? Not so sure.