Amazon Kindle DX Press Conference at Pace University -- some reflections from a social enterprise perspective
As fate would have it, I had to be out of town at the very time Amazon held its Kindle DX press conference at Pace University, where I happen to teach. Nonetheless, since such a high-profile media event took place right by my office, I figure I might as well jot down my initial thoughts here.
Of course, as per my disclaimer below, I probably should add that that any thoughts here aren't those of Pace etc. etc.--these are just the ramblings of the dork what writes this personal blog.As I noted to my social enterprise class, the arrangement that Amazon apparently has with its five universities--essentially to demo the larger Kindle as a textbook killer--reflects the symbiotic relationship between charities and commercial providers that has been the norm in recent years, particularly in such areas as higher education, health care and museums. The notion that higher education has fallen from an Edenic noncommercial purity may be an appealing myth, but from a historical standpoint it has been misleading since, oh, about the twelfth century.
From a legal perspective, arguably the most critical issue is for the universities signed on to the Kindle venture is that of retaining control over activities expressing their exempt educational purpose. Were Amazon, say, to start dictating textbook choice or the substance of the curriculum, the IRS might question whether a university is pursuing a substantial non-exempt purpose. Judging from what we've seen--and I know no more than what is available to the general public--that won't be the case, so one would expect few if any problems on the legal front.
Still, the relationship between Amazon and its partner universities is bound to raise questions, especially among academics from outside relatively more commercialized disciplines such as law and the natural sciences. Essentially what we have here are universities helping a single company to establish dominance in the market for educational texts.
There are analogues throughout the university--exclusive deals for soda machines and big box franchises running student bookstores--but this venture is more central to the academic enterprise. Given the realities of Amazon's usage policy and proprietary DRM, one could argue that the university's control over its curriculum would be illusory should the Kindle become the academic norm. It's one thing to force an academic community to choose Coke; quite another to create an environment where student must buy Kindles and professors are expected to assign books that are available in the Kindle format.
We can also expect questions as to the ethics and practicality of requiring students to buy an additional, not to mention branded, device in order to pursue their studies. Even with the academic discount that is likely to become available (extrapolating from the deals available from computer & software companies), the Kindle is in the price range of a netbook, low-end laptop, PS3 or an iPhone. As any number of other people have noted, the market is primed to be more receptive to electronic texts that can be viewed in media students already own or would like to have another reason to buy.
Finally, the Kindle venture is also interesting from the perspective of the history of the university as a medium for processing and transmitting information. It's tempting to classify those who favor the Kindle as on the cutting-edge while branding those who question it as hidebound traditionalists, but that would be a drastic oversimplification. In fact, one could argue that the Kindle itself embodies a traditional approach to electronic communications media.
As Marshall McLuhan observed, our initial impulse when dealing with a new medium is to recapitulate more familiar forms--for example, early TV transmitted stage plays and symphonies before developing rhetorical styles that expressed the television medium. At base, the Kindle does little more than replicate the textbook. Sure, the Kindle weighs less and does not cost as much as a many required texts, but that's it. The fundamental model is still one-sided and top-down: the authors write a text that students read.
That's not the environment in which today's students live and work. To be valued in the marketplace--and yes, to live a more meaningful life--students need to do more than read books. They have to become adept at finding useful information from a wide range of resources and communicating ideas in ways that are useful & engaging.
Perhaps a more cutting-edge approach than replicating the textbook would be to shift away from the model of students as information consumers. Instead, we could focus on helping students become more effective and compelling information producers. Rather than requiring students to buy a fixed text, we could focus on creating opportunities to collate resources and to write material that would in turn help future students learn.
In this environment, the professor relinquishes the industrial age mantle of hallowed authority to assist students in becoming professors themselves. By this I don't mean professors in the sense of the contemporary academic guild, but in the classical meaning of the word from which "professor" is derived--the Latin profiteor, "to speak forth." What university professors do is no longer the province of a privileged few; today everyone has the opportunity--and the responsibility--to gather, produce and transform information. The sooner we stop pretending that university professors have a monopoly on expertise, the better professors will be at fulfilling their new social role.
That said, I'm curious to see how this Amazon venture will play out. Among its other functions the university is a place for experimentation, and this is exactly the sort of thing we should try--especially if it means I get a free Kindle!
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