The e-book tractor application

Let’s rejoice: French teachers embrace the internet. Well, calm down. I’m not saying they embrace it the way I would like them to. This week saw two technological breakthroughs at my son’s Parisian high-school. The first one is a decision-support tool on the school’s website: it helps parents decide whether or not to send their kids to school when a protest blocks the gates, something that happens several times a year. Usually, my son whips up his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning : “Hey, dad, this just in: a text-message… gates are jammed by a barricade of trash bins (the kids’ touching expression of solidarity to last week’s teacher union action), I can go back to sleep”. Now, I’ll be able to fact-check the SMS alert on the web. (No webcam, though, I’ll have to rely on teachers’ good faith).

The second breakthrough happens as I immerse myself in the Life Science course for the same text-message freak, Abercrombie-clad kid who happens to be my offspring. Then, an epiphany. His science professor is an internet fan. Don’t get me wrong, here. As 90% of the 1.3m members of L’éducation Nationale (the world’s biggest employer after the erstwhile Red Army or, worse, today’s Wal-Mart), I’m sure the lady loathes the internet. You see: the net flaunts apalling attributes of foreign technology, it is the vector of free market ideology. Sorry, Larry and Sergei. Your Google is definitely evil, down here.

OK, the web can be convenient for educators. Actually, there is ample evidence the science teacher I’m referring to doesn’t understand what she teaches but, at least, she tries. Parts of her course come straight form the net. To the point where kids systematically google (sorry) excerpts to see where they come from. Needless to say, this is a powerful boost to the teacher’s credibility — to be found in one of the trash bins at the school’s gates.

Stay with me please, I’m coming back to this column’s subject: e-books. Last week, as my son and I lose ourselves in the genome’s arcana for an upcoming school-test, I get my own revelation. As I struggle to decipher the absurdly complex definition of amino acid in a textbook totally deprived of any practical example, my son browses the web in search of an explanation designed for normal humans. He googles genetic terms, lands on Wikipedia, which sends him to Inserm, a world-class French medical research lab. There, the lab’s site links to a better definition which, in turn, opens the door to a more detailed explanation, and so on. All the beauty and grandeur of hypertext, whose structure a 15-year-old boy navigates as if he were born in it — which, actually, is the case: the browser was invented about 15 years ago.

The e-book needs its tractor application and textbooks might be the “killer” one. Way better than the press (its time will come, but at a second stage). Still, media could benefit from a switch to the e-book form.

Here is how it could work.

Technology and price trends are on the learner’s side. Amazon’s Kindle costs $259 for the standard version and $489 for the larger DX model. That’s still a lot of money. According to the research firm iSupply, the basic version carries $185 of technology. Most goes to the screen. Now, factor this:

a) In 1992, ten years after the birth of the PC, a laptop cost $5000 in today’s dollars. Now it is down to a twelfth of that — and every student has one.

b) Competition: Kindle was the pioneer for a mass market product; now, Sony, PlasticLogic and many others are jumping on the bandwagon. Not to mention the next hypothetical iteration of the iPod Touch/tablet, one that could lead to a decisive evolution in the field (picture an iTunes for educational material). Prices will drop as performance increases (there’s room for improvement, e-books are still in their Stone Age).

c) Now, let’s consider the cost of textbooks. According a report from the National Association of Campus Stores, an American college student spends about $702 a year on textbooks (a quarter of which is purchased online); that’s a national market of about $9bn. The breakdown goes like this: all publisher’s costs (including production): 32%; college store operations (margin, taxes, personnel): 23%; author’s income: 12%. Even if we assume that half on the publisher’s expenses is printing, roughly 40% of the total cost of textbooks costs are removed by switching to electronic delivery on e-books. For our demonstration, let’s settle on 30% of $9bn. This yields $3bn. Divided by 18m US students, this leaves $166 to be spent on e-books, which is easily consistent with the price of a mass produced device.

Granted, these are back-of-the envelope calculations. But it shows that, applied to the educational market, e-books make sense, especially if you consider the inherent advantages of the platform: size/weight, net connectivity, “infinite” capacity with Cloud storage, shared annotations…

E-textbooks can boost the media sector as well. Think about the bottomless inventory of historical moments compiled by big medias. Imagine a history course on the fall of the Berlin Wall, academic texts written by professors supplemented by a vast range of material from media organizations: on-the-spot accounts from papers or newswire agencies, photographs, radio sound bites, TV networks footage, animated infographics, all of it structured in a multi-layer reading system.  There is no single discipline that can’t be greatly enhanced by digging into the media archives of trusted media sources.

My son’s life sciences courses would definitely look better. He would see an animation of the DNA’s double helix, learn about its discovery in 1953 by Drs Watson and Crick. More entertaining, he would read a profile of Craig Venter who sequenced the human genome and now hopes to created synthetic life. He would see the impact of modern genomic on our society through great journalistic stories such as this one.

I would love for all teenagers in the world to discover the extraordinary appeal of life science that way.  —

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