More on e-textbooks

A few weeks ago I did a post suggesting that universities should look at digital textbooks, both licensed and open access, as a way to help students reduce the cost of higher education. The reauthorization of the Higher Education act, with several provisions related to monitoring of costs, reminds us that lots of eyes are watching that topic.

A couple of recent news items suggest the richness of the opportunities, both for education and for innovative business models, that online textbooks can offer.

First there is this interview with Eric Frank, a founder of Flat World Knowledge, about that company’s venture into creating textbooks that will be freely available online and also can be purchased through a print-on-demand service and even as an MP3. Frank explains very clearly the imbalances of the current system for publishing textbooks, where high prices drive a thriving used book market that undermines sales and drives prices even higher and where new editions are created not because of changes in the field of study but in order to renew revenues lost to used book sales or piracy. More importantly, Frank describes in considerable detail the alternative business model that Flat World is pursuing, which combines a more consistent revenue stream with free availability for those who want only online access and many flexibility features for both the original author and other instructors to change and adapt the books for specific pedagogical needs. Flat World has at least 15 schools on board to experiment with its new model for textbook delivery; it is a beta test that should be carefully watched — whether or not it succeeds, it will provide valuable lessons about how we might harness the educational potential of online publishing and break the strangle hold of out-dated business models.

On a more whimsical note there is this brief article from the ABA Journal about a law professor who wants to create an animated “case book” for tort law. Professor James Cooper from California Western is proposing that animated videos of some of the most important cases in tort law be available on YouTube for students to study. This is obviously not just an impractical whim; Prof. Cooper has produced numerous short videos on legal topics (available here), including a public services announcement on DVD piracy called IP PSA (in Spanish).

My first thought about this was that the famous case in which NY Court of Appeals Judge (later Supreme Court Justice) Benjamin Cardozo decided that tort liability did not exist when the harm caused was unforeseeable would make a great video. That case, Palsgraf v. the Long Island Railroad Company, has great dramatic elements — a moving train, an exploding package of fireworks and a huge set of scales yards away falling on an innocent bystander. It is a set of facts that a first-year student is unlikely to forget, if they read the case in the first place. Unfortunately, the pressures of law school and the arcane nature of some of the opinions leads many students not to bother. The animated gallery of cases that Prof. Cooper suggests cannot replace traditional law school methods, but it could provide a helpful supplement. And since federal judicial opinions are almost always available on the open web, it is at least possible that a combination of this YouTube gallery with some sophisticated linking and added commentary could replace a casebook with an alternative both more economical and more likely to get students’ attention.

The “Law Librarian Blog” asks if this idea is innovative or insulting. From my point of view (as a relatively recent law school graduate), it is both innovative and representative of the kind of experimentation that needs to be taking place. Animation may not be the future direction of law school instruction, but all such experiments will help us arrive at a clearer vision of what that future can be, and they help us break the grip of traditional notions that are no longer working.

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