WoodenTypeBlocks When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid 1400’s, he fundamentally changed the way that information was accessed.  Prior to his invention, the creation of books was largely the work of monks, who painstakingly copied them by hand.  With the printing press, however, it was now possible to mass-produce books, and at a unprecedented speed.  Gutenberg had unwittingly launched the Printing Revolution, a truly seminal event in modern history.  The result, some 500+ years later, is a world in which books are easily and readily available to everyone through an infrastructure of writers, publishers, bookstores, and public library systems.  Gutenberg democratized knowledge by making books easily and readily available to virtually everyone who could read.

But are we on the precipice of another revolution?  In late 2010, leading online retailer Amazon announced its “Best of 2010” lists in a December 30, 2010 press release, detailing that its Amazon Kindle, an e-book reader,  was the single bestselling item it sold for the year.  Not to be outdone, Barnes & Noble, a leading online and brick-and-mortar bookseller, announced that its e-book reader, the nookcolor™, was the top holiday gift, and that its entire nook™ product line is its biggest bestseller in the company’s history.  Are these devices furthering the democratization started by Gutenberg?  Or does the way in which they make information available create a revolution of its own?  And what does all of this mean for education?

While the end result of the eBook Revolution – and what it means for education – is not yet clear, a few schools have already begun deploying digital readers and digital textbooks.  In Burlington, MA, the Burlington High School has decided that it will launch a 1:1 initiative based upon Apple’s iPad.  Details of the plan were outlined in a Boston Fox affiliate WFXT news story.  More dramatic, state education officials in Florida have rolled out a five-year initiative to make all school textbooks completely digital by 2015.  In short, there is already significant and substantial momentum to eliminate the traditional textbook and replace it with some form of a digital equivalent.

The reasons for the replacement are clear: students will now need to carry only a single device to school rather than many pounds of textbooks, and the information in the digital textbooks can be more “interactive.”  Additional reasons have been outlined in a 2010 white paper by The Florida State University PALM Center.  However, before one leaps too eagerly to the promise, one should be aware that digital textbooks do not deliver on all of its promises: a recent study by The Student PIRGs found that digital textbooks cost about the same as similarly-priced hard textbooks.  Moreover, because there is no such thing as a “used” digital textbook, digital textbooks were significantly more expensive than used hard textbooks.  This problem, though, may be only temporary.  As the move to digital textbooks is transformative, it makes possible for new entrants to the market who are not bound by the “conventional” rules.  These innovators will, no doubt, force downward price pressure.

Perhaps the bigger shift, though, will be in the way that we think about textbooks.  When iTunes reached critical mass, it forced a very important change, highlighted by The Christian Science Monitor in its article “Three ways iTunes, and its 10 billion in sales, changed music industry”, in the music industry: it pushed the end of the album and the rise of the single.  Likewise, the shift to digital textbooks will likely force the disaggregation of the traditional textbook.  For years, it has been possible to purchase portions of various textbooks and present them as a coherent “coursepack.”  The advent of digital textbooks will no doubt accelerate this disaggregation as instructors pick and choose the pieces that they wish to present to students.

So where does a school begin in a disaggregating textbook market?  Unfortunately, the answer is not clear, as multiple digital reader platforms exist.  In a recent The New York Times article titled “Among E-Readers, Competition Heats Up,” staff writer Joanna Stern does a round-up of the digital readers on the market, outlining the pros and cons of each.  If consumers need guidance on which reader to buy, it’s clear that convergence in the market has not yet occurred for normal books let alone digital textbooks.  The situation is very reminiscent of one seen played over and over in technology, years ago with the VHS versus Betamax, and more recently with Blu-ray versus HD DVD.  However, format wars needn’t preclude a school from exploring digital textbooks.  Thanks to devices such as the Apple iPad and sundry Google Android-based tablets – as well as apps in both iPad and Android varieties from the major players in the digital reader market – it’s possible to hedge one’s bets or even use digital texts from multiple sources.

It’s also possible that such devices could potentially preclude the need for format convergence.  VCR tapes and DVD discs has to converge because consumers simply wouldn’t purchase two devices that perform the same function.  In the world of digital readers, apps make it possible to have a single device that can perform multiple functions.  What is clear, though, is that digital textbooks are increasingly being adopted, and that the many possibilities of them – and the devices on which they are read – make them a compelling choice over the traditional textbooks.

By the way, though, it is Michael Hart who is oft-credited with inventing the eBook, not Steve Jobs.  Which is more important to the eBook Revolution, the inventor of the book itself or the companies that have popularized it?  I’ll leave you to decide.