Hack the textbook now!

The rumors were true.  On Thursday, Apple announced that it will enter the world of textbook publishing.  In typical fashion, Apple recognizes an emerging market, incorporates the market into its omnivorous platform, and applies a series of protocols and regulations to lock-down the synergies of convergence.  Less glitzy than music or video, the textbook market is an important, if somewhat rustic, branch of publishing.  College textbooks, for instance, generated $4.58 billion in sales last year, part of the broader $10 billion sales in textbooks.  That’s big money.

Several themes have emerged in the critical response to Apple’s initiative:

– – barriers: Apple’s iTexts will run on Apple’s iPads.  Can schools – – especially K12 systems – – afford to buy, maintain, manage, etc., iPads for all their students?  The logistics of mass iPad-ification are overwhelming.  The iPad-iText connection raises, however, another question: is the textbook initiative merely a way for Apple to extend the market for iPads?  Amazon, of course, uses its Kindle in the opposite direction: the device serves to support the market for content.  But, Apple remains a hardware company, and putting iPads into the hands of 55 million budding consumers must tempt.

– – control:  iText plus iPad plus Apple has raised fears that one company could control a pivotal element of school curriculum.  These fears are abetted by Apple’s notorious control over its App market.  (The assumption that curriculum depends on textbook is a sad indicator of how little we’ve changed our models of learning.) Curriculum control through textbook is nothing new in education, especially K12.  And, higher education textbooks already belong to a highly oligopolistic market dominated by less than a half-dozen companies, including Pearson, Thomson, Wiley, etc.  The real issue here is private, e.g. corporate, control of public education, but given the existing corporate penetration and domination of the textbook market Apple isn’t breaking any new ground here.

– – intellectual property.  As several glosses of Apple’s EULA have revealed, textbooks authored for profit within the app must be distributed through Apple.  As I read it, iTexts not authored for-profit aren’t restricted to Apple distribution.  To object to Apple’s initiative on these grounds is to buy into a whole system of monetization, and more particularly into a view shared by Apple, Pearson, Amazon, et al., that public eduction is in fact a market.  Once you see education as a source of profit, objecting to Apple’s EULA is really just quibbling about who gets what kind of cut from peddling commodities to a captive market, i.e. the nation’s 55 million public school students.  In short, this is really a political issue – – which side are you on?

So far, e-textbooks have not proven very popular with students or professors, and efforts to expand the e-textbook market within higher education have not zoomed off the launching pad.  However, new alliances between universities and publishers may change this.

To sum up, Apple’s new initiative isn’t really doing anything new.  Instead, Apple is trying to catch up with, reorganize, and cash-in on an emerging digital market.

Apple’s announcement is important, however, because it has turned the eyes of the digerati toward the textbook as technology, pedagogy, and commodity.  For those interested in alternative configurations of the textbook, this brief moment of visibility offers some important opportunities.  Now, more than ever, we need to start seriously thinking about and working toward an open-source textbook platform.

Textbooks are odd kinds of books – – they are assemblages of disciplinary commonsense rather than unique expressions of authorship.  As Audrey Waters has argued, this “assemblage” quality makes textbooks into prime candidates for the kind of remix and mashup practices that define today’s read-write web.  Mashup culture flourishes within open-source platforms.  And, a better way to greet Apple’s iTextbook initiative would be to really start developing the open-source platforms that allow teachers and students to hack “textbooks” together.

Not too long ago, Allen Lui asked the question: “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”  Developing open-source textbook platforms might not only put some critical edge back into digital humanities, it might also offer digital humanists a critical practice that takes direct aim at the social and economic forces that are reshaping education and the humanities: corporatization, commodification, marketization, etc.

Open-sourcing textbook platforms might produce better textbooks, but they might also remake the whole notion of the “textbook.”  Most digital textbooks – – even those available form more open-source producers like Flatworld or CK-12 – –  simply mimic print textbooks and reproduce the models of teaching and learning implicit in print textbooks.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, three basic principles for rethinking the digital textbook might help to hack together new learning environments that disrupt established models of teaching and learning: 1) harvest the commons; 2) submerge the textbook in remix culture; 3) disrupt the relationship between textbooks and pedagogy.

Apple wants to own the textbook.  To paraphrase the famous words of Wobblie extraordinaire, Joe Hill:  don’t mourn (or whine or kvetch or quibble), organize!


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