This Thing I Made

Textbooks suck. They’re heavy, difficult to update, expensive, in a fixed order, rarely (excepting some graduate and professional school materials) written by leaders in the field, and too often ridiculous compromises reached by less than competent state committees. A few years ago, I built, which made it possible to solve these problems by giving to teachers the power more easily to build and share their own textbooks. Next week, Apple just might introduce software that solves them for everyone else.

Textbooks Are Playlists

Think about what a textbook is and how you’d build one. There really isn’t much difference between making a textbook and a playlist in iTunes. With music, you put your songs in order. Once you’ve done that, you can burn the playlist to a CD (I said “can” not “would” - it’s not 2001 anymore), listen right on your computer, or sync up the playlist with your phone. So you build it by choosing and ordering songs, and then you output it in various ways.

Same thing with textbooks. You make a table of contents, and under each heading, you put contents. Traditionally, textbooks could only be bought as complete works and in a single format. The teacher or professor would choose a book. The students would then pay whatever it costs and lug it around. The prof then has a choice whether simply to teach the book in order (just play the playlist the publisher shipped) or to try to adapt the book to the class he or she actually wants to teach. Most of my favorite teachers did the latter and would also supplement the book with other materials, some from other books or journals and some of their own notes or other writing.

The actual course book, then, would be another playlist, one laid out in the syllabus, which specifies how the units of content are ordered. First, read this, which can be found here. Then read that, which can be found there. The physical textbook is, in this model, a sourcebook, one among a library of materials from which the virtual course book draws.

There must be a better way. What we want are beautiful, high-quality textbooks, customized to the course the teacher wants to deliver, at low or no cost to students, and available in a range of convenient formats. Getting this right requires a different information-sharing architecture than existed when I first decided to build HydraText.

Many to Many

The best example of shared production of written content on the internet has probably been Wikipedia. The whole idea of a wiki is that a great many people can collaborate to produce a single thing, an encyclopedia for example. Some tasks lend themselves to parallel effort like this, and others don’t. For textbooks, there is Wikibooks, which has essentially the same architecture as Wikipedia. Many people cooperate to produce textbooks.

But that’s not good enough. A teacher wants to produce the perfect textbook for him or her, and at the same time to take advantage of others’ work producing similar materials. We need software that permits many people to collaborate to produce not a single, definitive thing, but many customized things.

Here’s the HydraText solution. Every teacher has an account. And each subject has its own space (or Hydra, as I call it). You can upload or enter individual units of content, which I call Articles. These can be law cases straight from Google, your own text, ideally in John Gruber’s Markdown format but it’ll handle Word documents and other formats as well, PDFs, or even items from the web you’ve saved in Instapaper. You can build a Textbook by creating a table of contents and then adding Articles to each heading. You then hit a button, and out comes a web, ePub, and PDF version of your textbook.

But the real potential lies in sharing. You see, no one else can change your book, like they could if it were a wiki. But they can copy it, make it their own and rearrange the chapters, add more content, or delete content. They can take a chapter of your book, add a chapter of someone else’s, and add some of their own content. And they can build their own book using Articles you and others have added. This is the origin of the name HydraText, the tiny freshwater animals that can grow into whole new animals if cut into pieces.

An iTunes Education Store

My main goal with HydraText was to permit people to cooperate on producing customized texts. The result is an iTunes-style process for building a playlist from content you provide or that already exists in the Hydra. To extend the analogy, HydraText is meant to provide an iTunes Store filled with content in your subject area.

This content has the potential to be much better than what the textbook industry now produces. As it is, to author a casebook is a monumental undertaking. You likely need co-authors and research assistants. A Nobel Laureate, for example, is unlikely ever to take up the task of authoring a Biology 101 textbook but might enjoy writing a terrific section dealing with the heartland of his or her research. Just think of all the supplements teachers at all levels have prepared for their classes and that remain only in file folders, unused by others. By reducing the unit of meaningful contribution from an entire book to a single Article (however short), the HydraText model holds the potential of global use of better learning materials than have ever been produced.

Incidentally, although I haven’t added this feature, there is no barrier to letting users set a price for their content. And so the analogy to the iTunes Store gets even closer. Most materials shared would probably be free, like podcasts, but great content might be worth paying for.

Here’s an example of a textbook, a website from which students can browse the book directly or download a PDF or ebook. This particular book lacks audio, video, or images, all of which are possible, but it gives you an idea. I haven’t used a commercial textbook in years. In the past, my students generally wanted printed copies, and so I’d arrange a group rate with Kinko’s (now Fed-Ex), for maybe $10 for an 800 page book. This year, I’m just beginning to see more students prefer digital-only versions. However they consume it, the choice is theirs. They can read it on their phones, in a three-ring binder, on a tablet, or in a web browser.

What’s Apple Going to Do?

Back in January of 2010, about a week before the iPad was released but when it was clear a tablet was in the offing, I emailed Steve Jobs to tell him about HydraText. I had no idea whether he’d even see it (he did), but I wanted him to know just how important the tablet could be for breaking the textbook logjam. I didn’t hear back from him, but, obviously unrelated to anything in my email, we now know that Jobs had targeted the textbook industry as the next to be revolutionized. According to Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography (another topic but if you’re at all interested in Apple or Jobs, you owe it to yourself to listen to this), he apparently wanted “to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple.”

On Wednesday of this week, Apple issued an invitation to the media to gather at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on Tuesday, January 19 of “an education announcement.” According to the New York Times, the “event will showcase a new push by Apple into the digital textbook business, but will not feature any new devices.”

I think we can assume, at least, that Apple is planning to make textbooks easy to acquire and to consume on the iPad. It’s a reasonable guess that Apple’s solution will use the ePub3 standard, which would allow richer ebooks with more interactive features. But what architecture will Apple pursue? Will they treat textbooks like they do music, where Apple has made deals with the major publishers and features them on something like the Store where they can be easily downloaded? Would there also be something like podcasts on the Store, where teachers can, perhaps using Apple tools, produce and place their own materials, where their students can easily find it. Or could there be something more, a place for more than just books, but some Apple version of MIT’s Open Courseware, where whole courses live, and where the book is just an integrated piece?

My gut, and that’s all it is, tells me Apple will release new reader software, maybe standalone or maybe a new version of iBooks, on the iPad that allows for deeply interactive textbooks, which it will provide on iTunes free or very cheaply. I’m less certain about book creation tools. The Jobs model, from the limited quotes available and from what we know of his preferences and approach in other industries, would seem more likely to be making available beautifully made, professionally produced materials, rather than the tools for open-source-style collaboration.

But perhaps HydraText will become obsolete because Apple provides better production and collaboration tools. That will be so if Apple sees the essential value of customization and production in education. Perhaps, though, HydraText will become even more useful if Apple only provides a better reading platform and supports the richer books HydraText could be used to produce. Quite honestly, whichever they do will be fine by me. I’m a teacher first, and what I really want is the best possible experience for my students.

I’m excited, though, because we’re on the cusp of changing everything. My son now carries to school a backpack filled with tens of pounds of static books and a ridiculous, boxy Thinkpad in an even more ridiculous carrying case. All this is about to be disrupted.

I remember being in law school and having a class discussion about technology prediction. Electronic books and videophones were held up as examples of technology that people always predicted would soon arrive but which never did. For ebooks, the claim was that there were fundamental reasons for their inferiority to paper books. I argued that this was only a matter of display technology and that the advantages of electronic processing, storage, and display would become overwhelming with time. I have been wrong about a great many things in my life, but that was not one of them.