Web Magazine for Information Professionals

From Books to Bits

Ian Brown describes the transition from paper-based to Web-based textbooks, and outlines a novel solution for the production of teaching material within academia.

Time’s up for the textbook?

Don’t believe the hype. The high priests of Internet hysteria frequently predict the death of the traditional print media. But regardless of the technological problems - speed, speed and speed - that currently confront the Internet, there are compelling reasons why paper-based books and journals will always exist. BYTE - a computing magazine not known for Luddite tendencies - summed them up as portability, information density and character (1995). You can’t really curl up in bed with a good computer.

Textbooks, however, are not protected by all of these advantages. Information density - yes. Character - maybe. Portability - not likely. Five hundred pages seems an absolute minimum these days to satisfy an author’s machismo. On-line material is also a worthy opponent in this area. It is always up-to-date - no need for new editions every few years. Space is absolutely no problem. And other media can be seamlessly linked in. How could a biology book compare to an on-line version with a video clip of, say, a frog dissection?

This article looks at ways in which the World-Wide Web equivalents of textbooks are likely to evolve. Publishers are already moving some of their wares on-line. Government-funded groups such as the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) are rushing materials onto the Web. Even more radical efforts, such as students themselves writing Internet materials as part of their course, are underway. How much will all of this affect the traditional textbook?

Wholesale transfer to the Web

New media usually begin by copying forms from old. It’s easy to turn a textbook into Web ‘pages’ - just take the original computer file, and re-save it in this format. The only reason we haven’t been overwhelmed by these conversions is profit. Who would buy a textbook if it was freely available on-line?

Publishers are therefore using the Web as an advertising forum. Excerpts - sometimes whole chapters - are published to persuade readers to buy the whole book. While this is an admirable extension of the ‘try before you buy’ concept, it is unlikely to change publishing as we known it.

A more promising approach is adding value to a textbook with a Web site. Additional and more up-to-date information can be made available, and referenced in the text. Dorling Kindersley (see http://www.omix.com/family-library/) is taking this approach with many of its childrens’ educational books. Each book has dedicated Web pages, accessible only to those who have registered their purchase of the book. Microsoft even use this feature in their CD-ROM encyclopaedia, Encarta ‘97.

Another version of this approach is to debate issues raised in a book on-line. An example is The Race Gallery, by Marek Kohn (1996). A Web site contains discussion on the many controversial issues raised in the book. Relevant items in the news are also considered. Readers can directly make points and argue with the author and each other in such forums. The traditional one-way model of communication between author and readers is therefore redefined - something that could produce very exciting changes in the whole field.

But who pays for it all?

The key to this problem is that readers cannot be charged for accessing Web pages. This forces the information provider, rather than the reader, to pay for the material. While some academic journals charge authors to print their work, this is unlikely to work in the textbook world. Unless Web sites can encourage sales of related books, they provide no revenue.

This situation will soon change. Several Internet standards being developed will allow on-line ‘micro-payments’ of units as small as 0.1p to be made using ‘e-cash’ (VISA, 1996). Web sites can therefore charge users, and so fund their material. Publishers could conceivably charge by the Web page - perhaps finally breaking the ‘bigger is better’ view that grips the industry. Other models such as subscriptions to books (or even whole libraries) may become common.

This, however, ignores the absolutely fundamental challenge that the Internet brings to conventional publishing. As Nicholas Negroponte observes in Being Digital (1996), we are transforming from an atom-based world to a computer ‘bit’ (a tiny piece of information) dominated society. The fundamental difference is that atoms exist physically, whereas bits do not. The relevance here is that printing and distributing books costs money. Producing an extra book costs money. On the Internet, it does not. Once information has been created, it costs next to nothing to distribute. Once an on-line textbook has been written, it can be made freely available.

The question then, of course, becomes: Who pays the author? The most obvious answer currently is the Government. HEFC-funded bodies such as the CTI (1996) are putting a wealth of information on-line. Their role could be greatly expanded in future, as the authors of WWW textbooks that replace those currently used in education. Universities could form consortia to share lecture notes and other materials they have developed, as well as commission new items.

A truly radical solution, however, would be to help students themselves to write the material. Teaching material is often the best way of learning it. As well as aiding their education, the results of their labours could be used by others. Such collaborative efforts may also encourage more peer-group learning within classes - something very much in educational vogue.

Dr. Tony Downing is currently running such a scheme in Newcastle University’s psychology department. He started it hoping to give students the feeling that their written work was valuable through seeing it published, and also to encourage co-operation in producing and evaluating academic work. As he said, “I hope that working as (helpful) critics and editors as well as authors will help students to develop a more sophisticated awareness of academic quality in their own work.” He also hoped to “use the good work produced by individuals and groups as a resource for everyone, rather than waste it lying in drawers.”

As the scheme has only just got off the ground, it is difficult to know how well it is achieving these aims. However, one other benefit has already become apparent - “Already some people who had been fairly computer-phobic seem to be enjoying using e-mail, which they would not otherwise have done.” You can see the system as it evolves over the next few months at http://york39.ncl.ac.uk/WWW/P3.html.

It is only when you consider the cumulative dimension of such work that its real benefit becomes apparent. With a new intake of students each year, such courses benefit from the previous incumbents’ efforts. Even better, the material can be continually expanded and refined. One year’s work may produce a very useable resource. But after ten years…

The End

Computer networks are only going to get better. John Major has promised to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on new digital information systems. Even more importantly, ‘user-friendly’ is now the mantra of the entire computing industry. The days of the awkward and intransigent computer will soon be a distant memory.

Publishers are moving fast to embrace this new opportunity. But the World-Wide Web has made publishers of us all. The information streaming onto the Internet today is a mere trickle compared to the Niagara that is to come. When every computer is a Web ‘server’, how will we make sense of it all?

This may become the new raison d’etre of publishers (or libraries…). Sorting and filtering the information torrent is not something computers can manage on their own. Internet rating systems, such as Point’s ‘Top 5% Web sites’ (1996), are already taking off. Such quality control - previously almost a side-effect of the publishing process - may be the new selling-point of on-line ‘textbooks’. Their form and authorship may be very different, but it could be editorial judgements we end up paying for.