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Vol. 35 No. 2
March-April 2013

The Future of the Book

In 2009, CI asked Peter Atkins to explore questions surrounding the development of e-books (May-June 2009 CI). Atkins wrote “An e-book is a nimble thing, and, once its current deficiencies have been eliminated, it is inevitable that it will dominate the world.” Today, four years later, many of us are daily users of an iPad or similar tablet devices. Thus, CI has asked Atkins to revisit the question of “What is the future of the book?”

The book has no future. Most of us who have been brought up surrounded by the tactile pleasure of paper books (p-books) have a sentimental attachment to them, relishing their feel, enjoying being curled up with them in their friendly presence, responding perhaps subconsciously to their smell, enjoying their instant access, finding it easy to browse, serendipitously opening a page and lighting on an enjoyable enlightenment. For those like us in this respect, there will always be paper books, just as there are vintage cars for enthusiasts. The rest of the world, however, will have moved on.

The book has
no future.

There will be certain losses accompanying the replacement of p-books by e-books, as there are losses whenever progress replaces the comforts of familiarity. Perhaps at the most trivial level, with a big fat p-book, you know how far you have come and how far you have to go: the daunting thickness gives way, millimeter by millimeter, as the course progresses, and you have a real sense of achievement knowing that you have dealt with all the pages on the left with only the remaining pages on the right to go. Any e-book needs to be constructed with signposts so that the reader is aware of how much more is left, and a monitor of achievement so far.

Moreover, it might be an effective pedagogical procedure to struggle with a structured intellectual pathway provided by the author rather than to be provided in an e-book with too many shortcuts and helpful hints. The blood on the floor after struggling with a p-book might be a sign that you have truly mastered a topic. Learning involves grappling with a subject, ingesting and digesting it, making it a part of you like a medieval king made another country a part of his kingdom by battle.

A further point might be that whereas a p-book encourages you to use your imagination to build up internal mental representations of a subject, an e-book might do the creative work for you and leave your imagination under-developed: that is rather like going to see the movie of a novel rather than reading the novel itself and building your own imaginative world of the scenes and characters. An e-book must aspire to develop the imagination of the reader, for science is imagination in alliance with honesty. A richly resourced, well-constructed and pedagogically superior e-book can encourage great creativity by providing the reader with resources; but if its creation is careless, it could instead encourage laziness.

There are three kinds of electronic book. There are novels, where all the e-book needs to do is to emulate the p-book and scatter in a few advantages, such as dictionaries, bookmarks, perhaps even annotations for over-enthusiastic or under-informed readers, and the ease of purchase from anywhere at any time.

Here, I shall deal with textbooks, and it is with them that there might be two varieties. A student at a lecture does not need the distractions that a fully functional e-book might provide: they might need to refer to a graph, a table of data, or an exercise. For them, in the context of a lecture, all they need is portability and the ability to annotate, which very simple versions of e-books can provide and for which fully functional e-books would be a distraction. They might need to rotate molecular models and crystal structures, and they might need to play around with the parameters in graphs to explore points being made by their instructor, but the needs are basic. Their principal need is to reduce the burden of carrying kilograms of paper to a class and to be able to add notations.

Back at home, though, the demand is entirely different. Now we enter the realm of the fully functional, multidimensional, richly endowed e-book, designed to provide an elaborate, encouraging, and enlightening educational experience.

Apart from its easy portability, the principal advantage of an e-book is that it is interactive. Once again, it is important to distinguish between two different types of interactivity. There are all the obvious kinds of interactivity for chemists, such as the ability to plot graphs with varying parameters, the ability to build and rotate molecular structures, the ability to pull up videos of experiments and procedures, the ability to carry out mathematical transformations (I have Wolfram’s .cdf format in mind), the ability to summon up data from any central resource, and the ability to sail away into the web to gather further information.

Then, there are the less obvious kinds of interactivity, which include the ability to adjust the level at which the reader receives help or is encouraged to go beyond the basic exposition. This is the role of the “tutorial wizard,” who can judge the level of explanation needed from its monitoring of the reader’s habits or simply open up successive levels of explanation until the reader is satisfied and feels able to move on to other topics. A truly effective tutorial wizard would go beyond being a tutorial assistant and would find ways to encourage the reader to develop interests beyond the basic requirements of the text. Indeed, it seems to me that an aspiration of those who in the future will be compiling e-books of this richly endowed kind is to proceed to the point where the conventional lecture (and lecturer) is redundant. Each of us probably believes, or self-deludes ourselves, that a lecture can never be replaced by wholly electronic instruction: it is a challenge to e-book compilers to prove us wrong and to show that an e-book can encompass the role of the wise, understanding, stimulating, concerned professor, giving more attention to the student than can perhaps be achieved in real life.

Will one be able to choose an agreeable avatar as wizard? Why not? There is every reason to suppose that the wizard-personality can affect the responsiveness of the student to the advice, and if that means selecting a voluptuous blonde or a muscular hunk to play the role of tutor, then so be it. Maybe highly respected scientists, or celebrities of various kinds, will be able to license their images to be used as tutorial avatars.

The extreme kind of interactivity, of course, is the wikitext, where the community of instructors and students build the text themselves. We are already seeing steps in this direction, and conventional publishers are rightly concerned that wikitexts will prove to be the future, as well they might. The challenge is reliability and consistency, and the possible loss of intellectual integrity that (I at least like to think) a single-author or few-author text imposes on the subject. Education is not a democratic marketplace with everyone’s stalls of equal value: skill, judgment, authority, and sensitivity must pervade e-books just as these qualities commonly pervade p-books.

A side issue in the world of wikitexts, which might become serious, is the question of copyright, when students raid extant sources and deliver them unacknowledged into the wikitext arena. It will be a daunting task for the supervisors and editors of entries into a wikitext to maintain a consistency of style, substance, and notation as well as monitoring and eliminating transgressions of copyright. Perhaps the whole concept of copyright will vanish as wikitexts come to dominate the world of education.

Each of us probably believes, or self-deludes ourselves, that a lecture can never be replaced by wholly electronic instruction . . .

The “collectivization” of the creation process that the wikitext model takes to an extreme applies to a lesser extent to more conventional production approaches. Whereas a p-book typically has only one or a tiny band of authors and, for better or worse, their personality can shape the presentation of the material in the book, it is hard to believe that an e-book can be created by anything other than a committee, with all that that implies. It may be the case that in the future a “Hollywood model” emerges, where the project is led by an iron-willed director who gives shape and personality to the production, with a team bending to his direction and doing the fabrication largely anonymously. Thus, great authors will give way to great directors.

A related point is that e-book creators have a serious problem about the appearance of the book, especially in relation to the graphics. The young are currently immersed in computer games with their quite extraordinarily good (and expensive) graphics. The danger is that academic e-books will seem tawdry by comparison and convey to the reader a sense of disappointment. It will be essential for e-book creators to find ways to produce graphics of matching quality, including 3D images and animations. I am not suggesting that an e-book should be modelled on a computer game, and certainly not on the violent paradigms that so many of them represent, although there might be a creative opportunity lurking in that thought. Some attempts have already been made to pursue the game paradigm into educational software. The challenge will be to avoid trivialization of what should be a demanding, enjoyable, and instructive intellectual adventure. One-person shoot-ups of the periodic table are not the way to go.

A pessimistic continuation of the same thought is that an e-book might contribute to the demise of the written word. Although e-book readers are popular, it might be the case that when images are present, they squeeze out the need for words. It is hard to anticipate the ratio of words to images that are appropriate to screen learning, but my suspicion is that that ratio will become smaller as time goes on. The development of e-textbooks might, therefore, contribute to the lowering of literacy.

I have already touched on the impact of e-book creation on the role of authors, in the sense that individuals might give way to multitalented committees. There is another aspect. The current typical cycle for the preparation of printed textbook new editions is three or four years, depending on the level. The typical effort cycle of a p-book author is therefore about one year of writing, one year of seeing the book through the elaborate production process, then one year assisting with marketing and perhaps—towards the end of that year—for thinking about the next edition. If the cycle is four years, then there is at least the possibility of time off and the regirding of loins in preparation for embarking on the next edition. That changes with e-books, which can be continuously updated with no opportunity for respite for the author or the publisher. Indeed, it is probable that the traditional quantization of editions (1, 2,…) will succumb to the software model of versions with fractional updates between major revisions. Writing e-book textbooks will become an exhausting, absorbing process, and will appeal only to those who do nothing else. Publishers already find it difficult to draw authors into their clutches (despite the pleasures of those clutches that some of us have experienced over the years): They will find it increasingly difficult as potential authors assess the commitment required and perhaps the best brains will simply refuse to give up their other interests.

There will be some advantages to publishers in the e-book model, principally that it will be able to control and possibly eliminate the second-hand market. That market is currently the main driver of the high price of p-books, for within a year or so of the appearance of new edition, the second-hand market takes over and publisher and author look on helplessly with no remuneration for their efforts as used copies of texts churn below their gaze. Unlike a p-book, an e-book can be tied to a device, or even be time-limited, and although there might evolve a market in second-hand, loaded devices, that is probably less likely than the easy circulation of p-books.

Does that mean that e-books will become cheaper? Unfortunately, probably not, for if the market demands increased sophistication, so the expense of production increases even though paper, printing, storage, and transport are eliminated. Moreover, currently the content of p-books is generated by authors slaving away hopefully in garrets, whereas, as I have already indicated, the creation of e-books will draw on the talents of a professional, expensive team working in well-equipped, sophisticated offices. Upgrades might become feasible and provide a cheaper experience: instead of buying a whole new book to keep in step with editions (but which student does that anyway?) publishers might entice continued commitment with cheap upgrades. Partial upgrades will be pushed out to users, just as service packs are now.

New pricing models will become available whatever the core price structure of the book. Do you want the solution of an exercise?: here it is for 10c. Do you want more detail in a derivation?: that will be 25c, please. One year access to data?: $5 please. And so might evolve a whole landscape of micropayments for supplementary items. Your licence is about to expire: continue (with a free forthcoming new edition) for $10. You bought that text?: buy its sister volume with a 50 percent discount.

One consequence of the team taking over from the individual, a consequence of little importance to readers but vital to authors, is the contractual complexity that will emerge, with elaborate terms covering the various responsibilities and rewards of the members of the team and awkward clauses relating to translation and supplementary rights.

I have not touched on the opportunities that e-books provide for collaborative learning. Social networking built into the devices and the e-book itself will certainly emerge as a pedagogical phenomenon. Whether that will be educationally valuable or simply yet another way to fritter away one’s time, remains to be seen. However, those who favour collaborative learning rather than old-fashioned quiet, individual reflection might well be able to develop e-books with collaboration in the core of the presentation, which is perhaps an offshoot of the wikitext model I mentioned earlier, but local to the course.

In conclusion, let me say that all these conjectures are likely to be regarded as absurd when the e-book becomes established as the universal face and mode of education: The only prediction about the future that is always true is that it is impossible to predict the future, and that almost all predictions become risible when viewed from some future viewpoint.

Although we sentimentalists will regret the passing of the printed page, and regret the passing of the shelves of old friends that we have accumulated over the years, each with its own personality and each one remembered for the mark it made on our educational progress, we have to welcome the new dynamic e-era. That era brings a multidimensional environment to our teaching, putting information effortlessly at our fingertips, and will use special, unique, and as yet unimagined but extraordinarily imaginative ways of bringing the best out of young developing brains.

Peter Atkins <peter.atkins001@btinternet.com> was an Oxford professor of chemistry and fellow of Lincoln College until his retirement in 2007. He has written more than 70 books, the best-known of which is Physical Chemistry, which will soon be published in its tenth edition. His other major textbooks include Inorganic Chemistry, Molecular Quantum Mechanics, Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences, and Elements of Physical Chemistry. Until 2005, he chaired the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education.


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