Free [Edit: cheap?] eTextBooks, but for what hardware?

An interesting quote for the Steve Jobs biography (which I got from Mike Cane’s WordPress blog not by reading the whole book.)

Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform. He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction … His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. “The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,” he said. “But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified.

One one hand, I am scared by the idea of electronic textbooks being tied exclusively to one reading platform (iPad or Kindle or whatever) that all students must then pay for — even though the cost of a suitable reading device could easily be less than the cost of a single semester’s books.

On the other hand, the idea of cutting out publishers (and reducing the fortunes of a few rock-star textbook authors) is an overdue idea. The creation of the content for text books (as with academic research papers) is almost entirely the work of academics, and could surely be funded by educational institutions as a faculty activity with some help from academic societies and educational non-profits, since electronic content storage and delivery is a very small part of the cost.

For now, we have the absurd situation that electronic versions of textbooks cost almost as much as hardcover versions, and single-semester access often costs more than the common strategy of “renting” the physical book, by reselling it at the end of the course.

Update January 22: It turns out that the initial offerings are cheap (at most $15) offerings from commercial publishers, with the prices apparently premised on selling one eBook copy per student instead of one physical copy shared by about five students in successive years. Will we (teachers and professors and educational institutions and societies) step up and author those free books? I for one like the idea of students keeping the book for reference after the course is over, but a lot of students seem to disagree.

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