A chaos of Kindles and a new player in town

Autumn term, and another term of schools still using eBooks primarily as a means to provide yet another tick on the checklist of a pushy parent, marking off the facilities as they’re shown around another prospective school.

Okay, so they’re not all following this tack, but there are enough to bring on another facepalm of frustration. Either that or it’s just another head looking for a money-saving exercise.

And on the other side are the eBook ‘gurus’. I should probably stop giving impartial advice and just start bullshitting my way through as a consultant – some of them probably make pretty good money out of it.

Anyhow, last term ended in one local school with the question “Can you photocopy from a Kindle?” and moved onto a meeting a Peters in Birmingham and a focus group with an indecisiveness of librarians who seemed incapable of seeing the big picture around the monolith of DRM and licencing legalities.

It’s always good to get an idea of how schools want to use eBooks, and how the practicalities match up to the wish list. I’m always amazed at how people above a certain point on the management scale refuse to listen when someone says “No. It doesn’t work that way.” Maybe it’s because of the plague of ‘yes’ men that have ruled the world since the 80s and who I’m sure are responsible for the general failure of governments and corporate IT systems. Not for want of trying, but because they live in a universe of perpetual denial of the truth that things don’t exist for the express purpose of their pleasure.

No. Publishers don’t want that book to be put on an eBook Lending service. No, just because it’s on the Kindle store doesn’t mean that it’s available on a lending service. No, just because it’s an eBook doesn’t mean it’s a buy one – get five free deal (which is what it really boils down to). The fact that consumers are now familiar with the convention of being able to share a download over six devices doesn’t mean that it’s all above board to do this in a classroom setting – effectively meaning that in most classrooms you only need to buy five copies to get a class set. Not that they take into account the admin issues required to manage this (juggling multiple Amazon accounts keyed to different devices at the very least), the money-saving wheeze trumps all.

It’s the legality issue that’s made me put an end to my iPod touch/ Kindle app pilot – the Schools Library Service needs to play by the rules even if the schools decide to do their own thing. I’ll let them get their speculative invoice in their own time.

But teachers are discovering that eBooks, and Kindles, may not necessarily be Technogod’s gift after all. We start with the photocopying query, and move onto OHPs and smartboards. Now, with print texts, you can legally share a chapter or significant proportion of a print text in an educational setting. However, eBooks that you conventionally buy have this right removed in their licence agreement. You can’t legally share them publicly, even under the school’s copyright licence agreement. We then looked at how class teachers have children use class set texts and discovered a few more problems, such as with dynamic page counts and variable font sizes, there’s no way to direct the class to “Read paragraph x on page y“.

So, class teaching could be problematic, how about lending for reading-for-pleasure?

When I got as far as Peters in Birmingham discussions turned to the interesting concept of Schools Library Services setting up central eBook lending services. The idea being that schools may be put off spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on a sizeable collection of eBooks, so why not let the library service take the plunge and let lots of schools all dip into a large communal collection. Economies of scale, and professional book selectors buying the books – what could go wrong?

Well, for a start, the one service that piloted this reported an underwhelming takeup. Why? Well problems included:

  • When pupils failed to understand how to install the apps or download the books they mostly just shrugged their shoulders and gave up (I could have told them that this is what happens, a couple of years ago)
  • Schools were unable to offer tech support because pupils provided their own hardware (yep, another prediction of mine)
  • Publicising the eBook service was patchy in schools

There were also other problems with the Wheelers service, such as the difficulties with age-appropriate material. If both primary and secondary pupils are browsing the same collections, it’s possible that young children will encounter ‘unsuitable’ books. Not that I’m an advocate of censorship, but I’ve have enough complaints from teachers regarding swearing, or LGBT content, to know that some people out there very much are. As a schools library service our policy is to put a varied selection of material into the hands of teachers – it’s up to them to assess the content before they let the children at them. With eBooks, the children bypass any gatekeepers and have access directly to the collection, and that means that since it’s a 24/7 library, parents could also start questioning what eBooks their kids are reading.

Technically, age-limiting books is possible, but things will always slip through the net. We can’t read every book we buy, scouring the pages for the odd expletive, and besides, offensive content is subjective. I wouldn’t age-limit Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and I’d never have guessed that certain parents would have been unhappy with the supernatural references. I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when I was ten or eleven – why should I deny this book to other 10 year-olds? My GCSE English teacher said that he once tried to get A Clockwork Orange allowed as a set text. He was denied, but I think that it should be required reading for teens.

Anyhow, no matter what your opinions on age-ratings are, an eBook lending platform can slowly develop the same problems of free access that we find with the internet, just on a smaller scale. That’s a more interesting problem then DRM, surely?

Nope. Thank you librarians, you’re just bloody talking about DRM and I need to catch my train home, and I feel as though the day’s been wasted explaining basic concepts.

The DRM discussion takes an interesting twist with RM’s entry into the eBook lending platform market. I’ve just discovered it today and spoke to a nice rep at the company. I don’t have a huge amount of experience with RM aside from seeing their branding all over school IT setups. Their platform offers rental of titles (interesting) as well as purchasing, and fiction and non-fiction/ textbooks are all covered. The rental option makes sense when you understand that are three categories of purchasing – individual, whiteboard or school library.

  • Individual allows a single-user licence (rented or purchased) to be applied to either one person’s account or one device (a novel idea). This can’t be shared.
  • Whiteboard allows a single book to be displayed to a whole class in a lesson, but it can’t be ‘loaned’ for personal reading.
  • School library means that the book can be ‘loaned’ for a period of time to a registered user. Currently it can only be read with a live internet connection over an app, or browser, but they’re looking to make downloading possible.

The latter of course will be familiar to users of Overdrive or Wheelers. The Whiteboard system, though, is very interesting in that it is in direct response to teachers’ demands that eBooks can be made available for whole-class teaching. The individual licence, until I can get clarification from a rep, just seems like a cut-down of the library licence and probably only comes into its own with the rental system whereby a school only acquires an eBook for a short period, for example the duration of a topic.

It’s the whiteboard licence that I think may be a game-changer, and the magic bullet for RM’s system. Although certain publishers are wary, especially as many textbooks are also available over (lucrative) whole-school subscription services, and they fear that single-purchase eBooks may compromise this market. It remains to be seen how this develops and whether companies like Peters/Wheelers and Overdrive develop their licence agreements in this direction. It also helps RM that setup of the platform is free, and there are plenty of free (classics) books available as tasters that they’ll hope that people move on to buying paid-for books.

I’ll add links soon.