Ubiquity or Proprietary?

As you may know, I am looking forward to the day when our “textbooks” will be digital and students can purchase them at a fraction of what they pay now.  Of course, additional savings would be physical (lighter books–in one reader) and the “Green” impact of removing all the wastes and costs of production and delivery.

One author, however, worries that if we view the iPad as the path that Apple would rise up and exert censorship over the content, giving us the Jobs view of the world (much as many criticize Disney for giving us Walt’s sanitized view of how the world is.)  I could see  Apple doing that not only to sanitize content, but also to further whatever political agendas they may have given their apparent arbitrary, capricious and vindictive approaches to what is and isn’t approved.  (political in this sense in the larger meaning, not simply political as in government affairs.)

I mentioned this is an email, and in reply, I was told that we shouldn’t worry about that.  That Apple has demonstrated a willingness to not interfere in educational issues as shown through iTunesU and that Apple would probably never get enough market share for that to happen.

Perhaps.  But that led me to ponder further what really would it take to get digital texts  (or as my brother calls them “educational applications” to move from obscurity to ubiquity–and will proprietary get in the way?

First I wanted to address the interesting  notion that  iTunesU is the model of an Open Apple.  That might be true, but the textbook/educational applications that we are seeing discussed are positioned to be sold through the AppStore model, and  the App Store is a model of a closed Apple.  At times, a VERY closed Apple.   Recently we have seeen Apple exerting control not only on content but the tools to be used in developing that content.But let’s set aside for a moment the problems of if Apple were to control the market, and look at what it would take to get there.
Perhaps my correspondent is correct that Apple cannot garner enough market share to make them (and their iPad) a viable contender and competitor in the textbook space, but then we are left wondering:

  • If Apple doesn’t control a significant share of the textbook “space” then what are the options for students?
  • What incentive will students have to drop $500+ on a device that only a small fraction of faculty will have as the platform for their texts/instructional materials?

Will Apple work towards open standards so that the books/media will be able to be hosted on a wide range of platforms, or will Apple insist on a proprietary standard, working towards exclusivity for the instructional material they “host” on their platform.  This isn’t simply a red herring tossed out to direct attention from some “Greater Good.”  The fact is that right now students are able to choose from a variety of sources to purchase their texts (and thus a wide range of service/price combinations) and even between new and used books.  Faculty can choose between various textbook publishers/providers, which allows the professor to not only choose the best content, but the best value package for the students.

All that can disappear if one source controls the access to the media, and if there exist competing exclusive and proprietary sources for access to media, then students will be required to purchase not one, but several expensive readers/devices depending on the choices of the faculty member.  Or, alternatively the faculty will be hamstrung, “encouraged” by students or administration to only focus on those source-materials available and the dominant device.

So here we go–what is the decision making process that leads a faculty member to assign a “multi-media resource” as the course “text” rather than a regular textbook? What do you when the students are told that for my ONE class the book is no longer that big expense at $100-200 but rather the iPad becomes the big expense–costing 2-5 times that amount. AND there is no guarantee that any other faculty members will commit to a similar path? And of course the publishers don’t want to reduce the price of the “text” below 50% of the current price AND don’t want to make the “book” available permanently. And don’t forget, most technology has a life of 2-3 years when used regularly. Heavy use, along with ever increasing complexity of the applications/software, may well shorten the lifespan of the product that students must purchase, shifting them from a 1 time outlay to 2, or 3 times in the span of a college career–assuming of course that enough faculty adopt these “books” to make it worth their while.

At a time when the pressures from students AND the federal government is to lower the costs of education (and specifically texts) what professor wants to be the one to step up and insist that students get a high priced device that is designed for obsolescence?

So we are faced with an interesting challenge.  At a time when technology is holding out such promise we find at least one company who has the technical ability to break down the cost walls while simultaneously catapulting the technology of learning well beyond anything we have experienced.  And we find that the same company is tighting the grips on their “ecosystem” arguing that they can control their own little corner of the world.

This is one of those pivotal moments–we can see proprietary walls go up, and little gardens of creative learning spread slowly.  Or we can encourage open architectures that will enable creativity and learning to spread quickly, and widely.

Ubiquity? Or Proprietary? Which way do you think things will go?


2 thoughts on “Ubiquity or Proprietary?

  1. Steve,

    I think that at first things will go the way of ubiquity. Ubiquity will work until Apple or some other company gains the majority share of the market. Once the market tips in favor of a specific device or company I think proprietary software, apps, etc. will win out.

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