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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011

A Hack Education Project

The Digital Library

This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 7, 2011. Part 5 of my year-end series.

As far as ed-tech trends go, 2011 was not the year of the e-textbook.

Hooray E-Books

True, e-books in general have racked up record sales this year, outselling print for the first time, not just at Amazon but across the entire industry. 2011 was also the year Borders declared bankruptcy and closed its bookstores -- the end to a brick-and-mortar retail giant which had invested so heavily in all sorts of physical media (CDs, movies, and books) that have now gone digital.

Boo Textbooks

If there's one form of physical media book with bonus CD-ROM book that's despised, it has to be the textbook, right? Textbooks are heavy. They're expensive. They're boring.

So the potential for digital textbooks was certainly strong this year, and the popularity of the iPad, e-readers, and e-reader apps all afforded lots of opportunities for innovation there. But when it came to the actual adoption of e-textbooks? An actual trend? Well, not so much. Not quite yet.

Before I sound too pessimistic about digital textbooks, let me be clear: I don't see much of a future for the printed textbook either. After all, what did the textbook rental company Chegg do this year? Buy up various education Web apps and startups).

(And lest you think I'm dismissing development around open source textbooks this year, yes. I am. I will look more closely at the growth of OER content in a subsequent, but separate year-end trends post. I promise.)

Digital Textbooks: Not Quite

Heck, one of the biggest e-reader/tablet stories of the year was the new Kindle Fire, such an utterly lousy device for textbooks that you'd think Amazon knows something about the future of the (digital) textbook industry. Or something. (The company did start renting textbooks on Kindle this past summer.)

Don't get me wrong. Students are hardly averse to e-books. Like other book buyers, they're increasingly likely to be owners of e-readers and tablets. Yet despite their preference for e-books for leisure reading, when it comes time for "required reading" for school, students remain reluctant to make the move to digital.

Their reasons: digital textbooks aren't ideal for note-taking. DRM restrictions prevent sharing. The textbooks students need are often unavailable in an electronic format (or if they are available, they're scattered across various apps). And most importantly perhaps: digital textbooks are damn expensive, offering little to no savings over the printed alternatives (which can, of course, be bought used and can be sold back to the bookstore at the end of the semester).

But if 2011 wasn't the year of the digital textbook, it was a pivotal year for the digital library.

The Library Innovates

There's long been hand-wringing about the impact a switch to digital books might have on the public library. Indeed, if you view the library as just a repository of printed books, then it does seem like a bit of a dying institution. "Can the American library survive?" The Huffington Post asks in its new series "Libraries in Crisis." [Cue doom music.]

But, you know, when I look back on some of the coolest stories I've written this year, I see more than libraries just surviving. I see them as undertaking some of the most innovative and important educational projects and programs:

  • The Boundless Library: In May, the New York Public Library released its Biblion app that features items from the library's collection from the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair -- documents, images, essays, film and audio that let you explore the library's stacks "opening up hidden parts of the collections and the myriad story lines they hold and preserve." The library also hosted "Find the Future," a game played both online and in the library.
  • The Public Library, Completely Reimagined: A look at the Fab Lab under construction at the Fayetteville Free Library. The Fab Lab already contains a Makerbot (a 3D printer) and a most fabulous librarian, Lauren Smedley, who's helping the library get its hands on more hands-on equipment to help transform the library (which is actually housed in an old furniture factory) into a "makerspace."
  • Libraries and Museums Become Hands-on Learning Labs: A look at the winners of a competition sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the MacArthur Foundation. 12 libraries and museums were awarded grant money to help transform their facilities into "learning labs" for teens.
  • How the Library of Congress is Building the Twitter Archive: In April 2010, Twitter announced it was donating its entire archives of public tweets to the Library of Congress. Just getting the tweets from Twitter to DC is a pretty impressive undertaking, and my interview with Martha Anderson and Leslie Johnston from the library's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIP), was the first follow-up to the historic donation.
  • The Challenges of Building a Digital Public Library of America: As the title suggests, I examined some of the challenges that will be faced by the new Digital Public Library of America initiative, an effort on the part of universities, public libraries, and non-profits to devise a plan a national digital library.

So why then won't libraries survive?

Amazon versus the Publishers versus Libraries

As always, we can point to budget cuts as a major threat to the public library system. Indeed, 2011 began with a story about the patrons of the Stony Stratford Library, who checked out every single book in their local library, wiping the shelves absolutely clean in protest of the library's threatened closure.

But this year, there were other struggles too beyond just funding issues: there were struggles with publishers and authors and lawyers, with Amazon, with Apple, with Overdrive.

Now it's quite clear that library patrons are increasingly interested in in e-books, and 2011 brought lots more opportunities for patrons to be able to check them out. In February, the Internet Archive partnered with 150 public libraries to make loans available via its Open Library And in September, Kindle owners were finally able to check out public library books through Overdrive, one of the largest e-book distributors to libraries.

Many libraries do offer access to e-books -- via the Web, via download, via subscription, via apps, via devices -- but there are lots of complications over what that means and what e-book checkout "looks like." Checking out devices? Checking out pre-loaded devices? Check out digital video? Checking out e-books? (And I really do mean what it looks like when a patron does this. See also: the Librarian in Black's rant aboutAmazon and Overdrive.)

But of the "Big 6" publishers, two of them (Simon & Schuster and MacMillan) do not make their titles available to libraries to lend digitally. In February, HarperCollins announced new terms for borrowing its titles: a 26 check out limit before libraries would be required to buy the book again. In November, it was Penguin's turn to change the rules, demanding Overdrive remove libraries' access to its e-book catalog. The catalog was partially restored a few days later, but new Penguin books still aren't available digitally to libraries and it's not clear if Penguin books will stay in libraries in the future.

It was in November too that Amazon unveiled a different sort of library: a "lending library" for Kindle-owning Amazon Prime members. This program allows members one e-book checkout per month, offered directly from Amazon. This (albeit small and limited) lending library bypasses the public library altogether, and as PaidContent has noted, might have bypassed permissions from the publishers and authors too. The Authors Guild has suggested the program is a breach of contract, and Publishers Weekly has wondered if this will all end up in court.

There have been lots of other legal battles this year surrounding the licensing and digitization of literature: the rejection of the Google Books settlement in March. An Authors Guild-led lawsuit against the HATHI Trust in September. And as publishers and authors and book-retailers and libraries struggle -- legally and financially -- to adapt to e-books, it feels like it's library patrons that are at risk of being the biggest losers.

The Library as Community Learning Space

And yet it feels at the same time like libraries are some of the most innovative and exciting cultural institutions right now where some of the smartest, coolest programs and projects are being built. After all, the library isn't just a collection of books. It's a crucial digital / community / free / open / public learning space.