Are eBooks the best way to replace physical texts?

The Govenator is saying that California is going to do away with physical textbooks, but is this really going to be a good thing? There certainly is a lot of reasons on the surface that one might assume allow this manner of transition to make sense, but those quickly fall away if you think about what one would really be giving up.

The upside of eBooks is that they will always be current, the downside is that they will only be current for a price and for a user. The last thing that is going to happen is those major publishers releasing content for free and without any DRM. Textbooks on the other hand are not controlled by anyone other than the person flipping the pages and are transferable (should they ever leave the locker/room/bag) to students at will and at minimal cost. eBooks on the other hand are “pay to play” vehicles that have the potential to cripple one of the most basic mechanics of our venerable (and there is another issue… ) education system. Textbooks are not free of their faults either – Seth Godin’s post on this certainly cuts to the quick when it comes to texts, especially in higher ed:

  • They don’t make change. Textbooks have very little narrative. …
  • They don’t sell the topic. …  No one puts down a textbook and says, “yes, this is what I want to do!”
  • They are incredibly impractical. Not just in terms of the lessons taught, but in terms of being a reference book for years down the road.

An article from the EDCAUSE Review goes over many of these ups and downs rather well. But in the closing days of Web2.0, with the availability of all manner of “free” content, it seems to me that this change is in more than just the media that the textbook comes in. This change may also legitimize all the work that those schools with the old or destroyed texts have been doing for so long to make use of resources other than the textbook.