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Future of Textbooks

John Simkin

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Apparently, the British company, Nelson Thornes, have just sent out information to history departments that they are pulling out of selling history texts to concentrate on the e-learning sector.


Is this happening in other subject areas? If so, I think they are making a terrible mistake. Schools do not have the hardware yet to make pure e-learning a reality. Even so, if they did, it would not be desirable. Some things are still better done via a textbook. That will always be the case.

In 1998 I was asked to give a talk to all the editors of Hodder Headline on the future of the textbook. I told them I thought educational publishers would go out of business if they did not adapt to the e-learning revolution. However, I pointed out that the way forward was not to concentrate all their efforts on producing online materials. That would be as disastrous as ignoring e-learning altogether. The future was textbooks that were supplemented by online resources. In this way you could do in-depth work, online simulations, question witnesses and experts via forums, etc. These integrated textbooks would have added value and would be more appealing to teachers than stand alone textbooks.

The Nelson Thornes approach is wrong for both educational and economic reasons. Like other publishers Nelson Thornes is doing well from e-learning credits. It is a serious mistake to develop a business plan based on government subsidies. E-learning credits will not last for ever. Once they come to an end, the e-learning school market will collapse.

Companies have lost fortunes investing in e-learning in the adult sector. The reason being is that too many educators are provide free materials. The same is true for students studying in the adult sector. That is a problem that commercial publishers cannot solve. Online educators will make sure of that.

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Nelson Thorne must be crazy!

It was interesting to read the story in The Times (29 November 2000, p. 9) headed King leaves Internet readers in suspense. Stephen King decided not to complete his Internet novel The Plant because - according to King - "it failed to grab the attention of readers on the Web". King found that a surprisingly high proportion of the readers accessing his site (75%-80%) made the "honesty payment" for being allowed to download chapters: "But", he said, "there are a lot fewer of them coming. Online people have the attention span of a grasshopper." The article points out "that digital publishing has a bleak future because it is an unattractive medium for reading long texts and it is difficult to stop breach of copyright". See: http://www.stephenking.com

Web guru Jakob Nielsen writes:

"Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper. Even users who don't know this human factors research usually say that they feel unpleasant when reading online text."

Be Succinct! Writing for the Web, Alertbox for March 15, 1997: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html

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