The big publishers currently don’t have that much of a problem with interoperability of platforms (i.e. Windows, Mac, iPad, different e-textbook software). Most of their e-textbook offerings are just PDF files with a timeout, so they are easy to port. But all the major publishers are trying to enhance these PDF files with extras—questions, videos, etc.. One publisher I recently heard speak had no less than five different initiatives going on to enhance their e-textbooks, each with a different software platform. So even within one publishing company, I suspect there are going to be some interoperability challenges.
More generally, one of the promises of an open-source-like (“open-content”) model for textbooks is that a teacher could mix and match text chapters and other educational resources to create a collection uniquely suited for their class. Yet even the open-content textbook model has fragmentation. There are many groups, both commercial, not for profit, academic, and even state-sponsored, all trying to produce open content textbooks (often with all the attendant problems as I wrote about previously). These don’t really talk to each other, and it would be difficult, and sometimes impossible, for a teacher to combine content across the different platforms. (As an aside, it’s not clear to me that most teachers would want to do that anyway—teachers I talk to are busy and would rather be handed a single good book than have to create their own.) Still, in theory some of these projects could borrow from others so that a textbook author could select the best of the available open-content resources to create a single coherant textbook.
The real problem comes when you want to go beyond just text, graphics, and other widespread formats. This is where at SimBiotic we have our own bit part in this drama. One of the key features of our learning tools are sophisticated simulations built in our own, proprietary modeling engine. Our software is essentially in the same role as Apple’s iPad. A user can write new materials within our software, but they will only work on our platform, and could not be distributed without going through us. Moreover, we are developing autograded questions and other enhanced features that require the use of our whole platform, not just one piece of software. Of course our platform is pretty darn good for teaching biology so people who use our software tend to be very happy with it (ala Apple and their computer platforms). But someone who wants to use some of our labs together with chapters from a major textbook publisher, and perhaps social networking tools from some brand new project like Open Cobalt would have a cobbled together syllabus rather than a seemless text for their class.
One dream would be of a single, all-encompassing, open platform to which each organization developing educational materials could plug themselves in. A major attempt at this is the SCORM standard, which has had some success, but does not encompass nearly all the innovations available. While I think such a single platform could be powerful for educators, I also think it should be the one we’ve developed at SimBiotic, because we have some great features and integration between those features that we would have trouble replicating on someone else’s platform. Of course every other developer will say the same thing. So how do you choose? In the end, it might be better to allow multiple platforms, both open-content and proprietary, to continue competing with each other rather than trying to force them together. A few will bubble up to the top, just like with operating systems, and a teacher will have to choose which one to go with. The choice is limiting, but also allows for high-quality products, low-cost products, new ideas, and other differentiators that would be difficult if everyone had to conform to one master. And I guess that just like with computer operating systems, that is how its going to happen for educational materials whether its better or not.