Journalism textbooks can be a challenge (or as one commenter on my recent post on the subject called them, an oxymoron) in today’s fast-changing media world. The long wait between writing and publication usually means at least portions of a book about journalism will seem outdated when it finally reaches the hands of college students.

Imagine trying to write about social media’s influence on journalism right now for a book that won’t hit the market until a year from now, and you get the idea.

As I also wrote, publishers are still churning out journalism guides and textbooks because students prefer print textbooks, even potentially outdated ones, to online versions. In general, e-textbooks have not improved on the print experience enough to warrant a switch. Students pay less for digital books, but for a long time all they got in return were PDF replicas of print pages. No highlighting, no notes in the margin, no dog-eared corners to mark a spot, none of the interactivity that other online media provide, and nowhere near the immediacy or reliability of an actual book. It’s no surprise e-textbooks have been slower to catch on than commercial e-books.

I challenged Mindy McAdams, a journalism professor at the University of Florida and author of the blog Teaching Online Journalism, to come up with the ideal way to offer one-stop journalism guidance to college students, as opposed to the grab-bag of blog links and articles we instructors are increasingly tossing at students. She thought about it and decided the perfect journalism textbooks would not be books at all, either in print or online.

She envisions a world where publishers pay experienced journalists to create and regularly update online modules devoted to teaching the cutting-edge tools and core values of journalism. The modules would be time-stamped with each new update, so that students would know just how current the information is. And instead of paying for a book at a store, they would pay a subscription fee to access those modules for a semester. The onus would be on publishers to pay for quality content, to make that content innovative enough to improve on the print version, and to update only when truly warranted, so that they can maintain the reduced cost of an e-textbook.

“A lot of journalism materials should be put online, but there needs to be a much higher level of quality control from the publisher, because the students will not tolerate junk,” McAdams said. “They will not tolerate a course that consists of a lot of PDFs uploaded to Blackboard. And I think they are right.”

Doing Away with the Book

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CourseSmart is already there when it comes to pricing. Five major educational publishers joined in 2007 to start the company, which provides more than 90 percent of the e-textbooks in use today. Students save up to 60 percent by subscribing to a text for a semester versus buying a new book, and CourseSmart has tried to reward their investment by adding the ability to take notes, search by keyword, highlight text, and email passages to classmates. But the e-books are still faithful replicas of their print counterparts, meaning they look and read the same way and are updated at the same slow pace.

CourseSmart has a good reason for this, as CMO Jill Ambrose explained*: “While e-textbook adoption is growing rapidly, many students still prefer print textbooks and this makes page fidelity crucial. CourseSmart enables all students, whether they are using a digital or print edition, to literally be on the same page.”

Such fidelity makes sense in a world where print still dominates, but some e-learning entrepreneurs are trying to push publishers to a new world, one that, incidentally, allows for the kind of agile updating McAdams proposes for journalism education.

The idea is to think of e-textbooks more like software than online books. Throw out the concept of a book altogether and develop movable, interactive units that can be updated whenever necessary, just like an operating system or mobile app. The concept isn’t entirely new, but the emergence of the tablet, especially the iPad, makes it much more feasible. A decent tablet provides the immediacy and portability of a book, the interactivity and multimedia experience of a computer, and at $500, the cost of what the average college student pays for a semester’s worth of textbooks.

Inkling of the Future

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San Francisco-based Inkling is offering more than 100 higher education titles this fall for tablets.

A San Francisco startup called Inkling is banking on that pitch, at least. The company is rolling out more than 100 higher education “titles” (they don’t call them books) via tablets this fall semester and hopes to see them take hold with college instructors and students. Inkling works with publishers to adapt print textbooks for tablets, a six- to 12-week process that turns linear, static chapters into modules with interactive graphics, video and web links, highlighting and note-taking functions, and a learning network in which students can converse about what they’re viewing. Whole titles sell for about 20 to 40 percent less than their print versions, or individual chapters can be purchased for $2.99 to $16.99, depending on the book. The buyer owns the content outright versus temporarily subscribing to it.

Academic publishers are seeing the potential of Inkling and similar providers like ScrollMotion and MindTap, and I am too. Imagine reading a book chapter about journalism’s watchdog role in American history. Then imagine sprinkling that reading with video of President Nixon’s resignation speech, the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Pentagon Papers case, or an exchange with fellow students about whether it’s worth going to jail to protect a whistle-blower’s identity.

Now — and here is the part that most intrigues me — imagine the publisher updating that chapter to include WikiLeaks and the new levels of access to and scrutiny of our government that it represents. The addition takes however long the writing and editing take, with no production delay to worry about. In Inkling’s world, much like McAdams’ imagined one, updates can be made at will, whenever the publisher deems them necessary.

“The Inkling platform can push an update out to an iPad at any moment,” said Matt MacInnis, Inkling’s founder and CEO. “The student gets a badge saying there’s an update available and would you like it. It’s more like a website than a book.”

As he later acknowledged, “The question is really how editorial teams approach this structurally within their organizations. Some publishers are starting projects with us that don’t have edition numbers because they just want to roll out updates as they should, like we do with software.”

When to Update

Major academic publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson have partnered with Inkling and provided books for the tablet treatment. McGraw-Hill has the biggest share of Inkling titles so far, at 23. Subjects include biology, micro-economics, psychology and marketing. No journalism or mass communications yet, but I’d like to see it happen. Not because I want a quick chronicling of every zig and zag of the industry’s transition, but because we need to start calibrating the process of updating digital textbooks about journalism (or any other subject) smartly and thoughtfully.

Vineet Madan, vice president of Learning Ecosystems at McGraw-Hill, is a big believer in the Inkling approach and helped connect his company with the startup. Yet he echoed a sentiment I tell my journalism students all the time: Just because technology has created a world where you can publish what you want when you want, doesn’t mean you should. Figuring out when to update journalism instruction, and making sure it’s done right, would take even more effort in a world untethered from the laborious process of pushing every new edition through a printing press.

“What (McAdams) is talking about, in terms of having a mechanism to have more updates, makes sense,” Madan said. “How that happens is the real question.”

It is certainly an important question. The vetting and editing and care that publishers take with book manuscripts should not go away in the digital world, even if that process still takes longer than some of us would like. Instructors should not be inundated with updated content, especially after they have carefully built a class around the current version of their chosen “title.” And students certainly should not bear the costs of frequent, perhaps needless updates. Publishers are sometimes criticized for churning out new editions of textbooks too frequently. There should be no cause for such complaints in the digital world.

All signs suggest that e-textbooks are going to take off in the next decade. That’s no surprise, given that each generation of college students is more wired than the last, and that e-textbook providers like CourseSmart are enhancing the user experience in significant ways. But anyone who watched television in the 1940s or read newspaper websites in the 1990s can tell you that content sometimes lags behind the medium. We could be looking at a future where e-textbooks move away from the idea of “books” altogether and, best of all, give students the most thorough, up-to-date information about the subjects we are trying to teach them.

Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York. She earned her master’s degree at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and spent 10 years as a metro reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune before transitioning into academia.

  • NOTE: This post has been altered on 8/30/11 to attribute the comment from CourseSmart to Jill Ambrose, the company’s CMO, instead of a spokeswoman, at the company’s request.
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