Electronic "publishing" is already a well known phenomenon. We are all familiar with audio CD's, audio cassette tapes, video tapes etc. We are also familiar with the electronic "broadcast" media - television, radio and so forth. We may even have come across FAX based publishing, in the so-called "FAX-back" systems used to automatically distribute various kinds of writtem information on request. These are all important modern forms of publishing. They also already play a significant, albeit circumscribed, role in education.
However, in education, as in the world at large, publishing is still dominated by conventional print media - above all, by books. Electronic publishing has so far been limited to specialist, niche, applications, where it has had some special or unique advantage to offer. The reasons for this are clear enough. The quality of electronic display screens has, to date, been seriously inferior to that of print, at least for conventional text or photographic materials; moreover, electronic displays are bulky and inconvenient to handle, and, of course, expensive. Electronic publishing has thus concentrated on those materials - audio and video - which cannot be treated at all with print media; and in this area, electronic publishing has been modestly successful.
But there is a revolution in progress in the world of electronic publishing, and the old assumptions about its role are quite suddenly ceasing to be valid.
This revolution is coming about as a side effect of the explosive growth in computer and telecommunications technology worldwide. The effect has been to drive down the costs of all kinds of increasingly sophisticated electronic components. The net result is that new forms of electronic publishing are now becoming cost effective. These are naturally competing with the existing specialised kinds of electronic publishing; but, more importantly, they are also beginning to compete much more directly with the traditional print media. In short, genuine electronic books are no longer science fiction, they are a scientific (and commercial) fact; and what's more, for many purposes, they are not only somewhat cheaper and infinitely more durable, but they are actually much more useful than printed books.
Prophecy is a very dangerous business, so I will not risk predicting the total demise of print publishing, or of traditional printed books. But I will predict this much: in the foreseeable future, the relative importance of electronic versus print publishing will alter dramatically, to the point where electronic publication becomes the norm, and print media are relegated to a variety of specialist, niche, applications. This will not happen in a few months, nor even in two or three years. But the positive advantages which the new forms of electronic publishing now offer are clear enough that the trend will surely be inexorable.
Furthermore, for certain publications, most particularly in the educational arena, the changeover will, in fact, be almost instantaneous. For example, the electronic encyclopedia described in the prologue is already a reality. Its advantages were only just hinted at there, but they are very great indeed; so much so that, within another year, or perhaps 18 months, I believe that a school or college or public library will be about as likely to buy a traditional printed encyclopedia, as to invite tenders for a hand-crafted illuminated manuscript! And what is true of the encyclopedia, applies almost equally to the many other large, and traditionally expensive, works of academic reference - atlases, dictionaries, directories of all sorts, newspaper archives and so on. They are all, almost already, things of the past.
To those that have been bored by the repeated (failed) predictions over the past twenty years that the "computer" is just about to revolutionize education, perhaps even replace teachers and schools altogether, this probably sounds like yet more crazy and entirely unfounded speculation. I can well understand how that view could arise. But I will devote the remainder of this article to trying to convince you that it is mistaken - that this time, technology really has something useful and beneficial to offer to teachers at the chalkface.
The crucial point is this: though the electronic book is based on computer technology, the correct comparison is not with previous failed attempts to introduce "computers" into education, but with previous (much more limited, and quite successful) forms of electronic publishing - television, audio and video tapes and so forth.
However, while I will hope to give you some inkling of why I believe that the new forms of electronic publishing are going to have such profound effects, let me admit that the task may be almost impossible. There is no substitute for actually using this technology. So, whether you find my arguments convincing or not, I will be more than satisfied if you will agree simply to put them to the test: I feel quite sure that when you have seen these systems in action, you will quickly become as convinced as I am that this will be the dominant educational publishing medium of the very near future.