The recent Amazon / Brazilian Department of Education announcement raises some larger questions about the future of (digital) textbooks. It’s not enough to accept that textbooks will be read over devices like the iPad rather than in hardcopy. Instead, the paradigm of digital has the potential to change the entire business model of the textbook market altogether.
But first, a preamble.
I remember reading a prominent author recently discuss the crisis of self he felt knowing that his ebook was to be a fundamentally different product of labor than his regular print books. There is no “final draft” of an ebook; he can go back and change the digital text infinitely many times. He will never be held accountable for any piece of writing in the same way that he would have been with hardcopy. With that realization came flux. What does it mean to put one’s thoughts down anymore? Imagine the mandates of authors like Nabokov and Kafka who wanted all their unfinished fiction burnt upon their death. In the care of opportunistic or merely generous relatives, those directives were ignored and the works shared with the world, giving us invaluable literary benchmarks like The Castle and The Original of Laura.
Textbook authors are similarly less beholden to history with the new digital textbook world. It may not mean similarly existential crises of self-understanding as fiction authors face (as comical as that would be), but it does lead to a large disconnect around the current textbook model.
As EdSurge reports, Amazon and Brazil’s Department of Education have come to terms on an agreement allowing Amazon to deliver digital textbooks to teachers throughout the country. The delivery would be done exclusively via Whispercast, the mobile device management system Amazon uses for Kindles deployed within an organization. In addition to stating that Amazon has already delivered more than 40 million textbooks, the announcement also dropped an almost innocuous note that Amazon and the Brazilian DoE have jointly started converting over 200 textbooks to digital for delivery to public high schools as well.
There are three elements to this announcement, two concerning Amazon specifically, and one broader implication.
There exists a vast literature exploring the concept of business cycles. The four basic phases are Expansion, Boom, Recession, Depression, and the economy, or even specific industries, exists in one of those four phases at all times. In a much broader sense, I wonder about a Societal or Civilization Cycles, characterized by two phases, Fragmentation and Consolidation. Is society at any given point either self dividing into smaller functional units or seeing those smaller functional units merge into larger ones?
In some ways, this is a silly statement. Saying society is always either consolidating or fragmenting is sort of like saying the economy is always either growing or shrinking. It is reflexive. This dialectic isn’t entirely a meaningless cut of the world since consolidation and fragmentation are motivating factors rather than end results. The drive towards one or the other is something that defines an end state of societal components. Other dichotomous distinctions (like growing vs. shrinking) are often mere outputs. When an economy grows, you can’t draw the same conclusions about its future as you can when you know that it’s going to be consolidating. (E.g., growth in what direction?)
Lifehacking abounds these days, on sites like Quora, Reddit, startup blogs, even NPR. It’s a perfectly rational trend for society to adopt. Lifehacking promises not only to help us do things better, it promises to make us happier and give us more time in our lives. Anyone who follows this trend realizes how closely lifehacking is tied to Silicon Valley culture. (There’s a reason three out of four links above are from Quora, Reddit, and the hugely popular social media startup Buffer.) Decomposing the phrase “life hack” itself should tell you this; it co-opts the term “hack” which has only recently taken on positive connotations through unironic evangelizing by the respected tech establishment. Hacking refers to subverting a traditional system through well thought out side roads. In the lifehacking sense, it’s productivity arbitrage.
I can’t help but read deeper meaning into this connection between lifehacking and Silicon Valley. Tellingly, lifehacking is rarely focused on improving your productivity for the sake of work. Instead, it’s focused on improving your productivity for one of two things: a) personal fulfillment or b) personal efficiency. That personal focus is key: lifehackers lifehack for entirely selfish purposes. (How many lifehacking articles start with, “20 Ways To Maximize Your Value To Your Employer”?) Which leads to the question, is it a coincidence that the originators of the “as-a-Service” movement are so desperately seeking ways to improve their own personal productivity? No. In fact, I’d argue lifehacking is the enabler of a new “as-a-Service” movement: Labor-as-a-Service (obviously, LaaS).
Aaron Levie was profiled in an education-focused interview a few weeks ago on Medium. The interviewer, Afraj Gill, did a fantastic job getting past the platitudes and gave Aaron a chance to share some clearly well-established thoughts regarding education. I try to be selective when recommending articles and this one clears just about every bar I’ve set for myself. Gill’s profile is that important for a few reasons.
Professor Clay Christensen rocked the world with The Innovator’s Dilemma back in 1997. JMI’s summer reading list for all new associates includes that book and after finishing it, I immediately realized how important it was to think about “disruption” according to Prof. Christensen’s mindset. Disruptive innovations aren’t immediately better on all fronts, but instead, embrace seemingly fatal flaws in order to access a much broader market; over time, technology improvements eliminate those flaws but the product still has its massive market to reach. The iPad, for example, is disruptive since it sacrificed processing power, typing ease, and a million other laptop features all to enable casual accessibility. It didn’t matter that it was technologically inferior to laptops, people found new use cases for it and its addressable market expanded dramatically. The Innovator’s Dilemma has become a cottage industry of sorts; Prof. Christensen has talked about it in the healthcare and education contexts (Disrupting Class) and has even founded a namesake institution for Disruptive Innovation.
As iconic an image of the classroom as the perfectly polished red apple on a teacher’s desk, as evocative a symbol as the moss green, lined chalkboards, is the slightly askew gold star collected by eager kindergarteners for (out)performance in the eyes of their teachers. Why not update that for the Web 2.0 era? ClassDojo is premised on tech-ifying classroom behavior management. Rather than handing out gold stars or even manually tracking positive comments on a clipboard or poster, teachers can now manage all of this not just electronically but through a mobile app. And by gamifying classroom behavior, students should become more incentivized to maximize their engagement.
For an enterprise as elementary as Gold Star Management (GSM…just kidding, we don’t actually need that acronym), the app is appropriately simple and intuitive. It may toe the line dangerously between “feature” vs. “platform,” but there’s no denying that it does what it wants to do better than any other company out there.
I can only hope for additional demonstrations of my own prescience.
peHUB wrote recently about the hedge fund Tiger Global’s move toward investing in technology startups. My loyal readership will recognize in this statement a clear continuation of an earlier post on Snapchat which discussed Coatue’s movement into the space. That post looked at how hedge funds, with their large capital pools and lower cost of capital, may be able to “disrupt” the traditional VC model which bundles capital with expertise to then demand a higher return.