Tablets and Textbooks

“E-books in college,” said Frank Lyman, EVP of eTextbook company CourseSmart, “have been 2 years away for 10 years…” That was two years ago, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. Tellingly, that article from January 2008 was entitled, “E-Textbooks—for real this time?”

While the moment wasn’t quite then either, many more people would now hold that the prospect of a widespread adoption of eTextbooks is, if not imminent, then perhaps just two years away—“for real this time.” The supporting evidence seems overwhelming. Several eReaders have since hit the market, generating significant sales—not only the Kindle, and the Kindle DX (specifically designed for newspapers and textbooks), but also Sony’s Reader and Barnes & Nobles’ Nook. The Entourage eDGe, with its dual screens (e-Ink and LCD) is a hybrid tablet/netbook designed specifically for student use. And there are a number of others either available or on their way.

But one would might excused for thinking that that these devices too will not quite inspire the digital transition. Kindles are mostly purchased by folks middle-aged or older—in fact, they’re especially popular with retirees looking to change font sizes and port around lots of novels and travel guides.

One might be so excused, that is, until Apple introduced its iPad last month. Publishers of all kinds, including the largest textbook producers—Pearson, Cengage, McGraw Hill—are lining up to add their content to the iPad. And these largest publishers are working with app maker ScrollMotion in order to make the digital texts as compelling as possible to students.

The trial of the Kindle DX at several universities, including Princeton, went so badly that it was halted early.

Their attractiveness to students is tied, though, as much as anything, to their relative costs (the saving they would bring over the physical texts). And that may be the rub here. Publishers (in general) are running to the iPad partly because they face nothing like the pricing pressure they do with Amazon’s Kindle. In fact, just the announcement of the iPad was enough to inspire publishers, beginning with Macmillan, to rebel against Amazon’s low pricing model and we’re now starting to see eBook prices rising, to the consternation of many readers. While this concerns popular trade books at the moment, there’s little reason to think that pricing will not be a major issue for the widespread adoption of eTextbooks. The Student PIRGs, a national student research and advocacy group, sums up the opening move on iPad based textbooks: “the iPad is cool but it won’t make textbooks affordable.”

Still, few would seriously doubt that we are nonetheless moving inexorably toward the digital distribution of classroom learn materials–we are, after all, just two years away from widespread adoption.

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Textbooks and Their (Dis)Contents

Welcome to a new blog about course materials in general, textbooks in particular, and the transitions currently underway in the way that faculty adopt and students purchase these materials for their classes.

As a former academic with now ten years of experience growing a successful business helping schools effectively manage such transition, I’m hopeful that this blog can provide some useful guidance in thinking through the myriad issues that educational administrators and faculty face. I hope too that interested readers will post their own thoughts and questions, and that we’ll have a lively ongoing discussion.

Textbooks, or course materials generally (in the near future we’ll need new terms for these), occupy an odd position. By virtue of their content, they are fundamental to a school’s pedagogical mission—they are the stuff of scholars to scholars (or teachers) and their students; they represent the body of ideas and information that allows one generation to pass to the next foundational knowledge of a discipline or profession. In this sense, they’re part of the “noble” profession of teaching itself. At the same time, however, this content is produced, distributed, and redistributed (in the case of used materials) through commercial enterprises whose mission and purpose are usually quite different than those of the institution. This is perhaps best illustrated by the unusual separation between the adopter of the materials (the faculty, typically) and the actual purchasers of them (usually students).

The faculty consider, as they should, a text’s content, its quality, suitability, etc., before making an adoption choice; historically, the cost of the texts, the availability of used, and so on, have been of at best a secondary importance. Students too make determinations of value, but these are much more closely associated with the cash they need to make the purchases. “Do I need all the books?” “Could I share or photocopy what I need?” And all too often students forgo these purchases altogether—millions of them do, actually, each term.

Textbooks and their costs are a sore point for students and their parents, a point of such discontent that many states have introduced legislation to address the matter, as has the federal government with its Higher Education Opportunity Act (see section 112), which takes effect this July.

Now, of course, students have far more purchasing choices than ever. The internet has not only allowed students to buy new and used books through third parties at lower costs, but it has introduced exciting new business models, most recently rental programs and eTextbooks.There is also a general feeling that eventually eReaders or tablets will be the devices that hold a student’s entire set of course materials. And it’s all moving pretty rapidly. These will be among the first set of topics, which I’ll post soon.

This blog, then, takes as its starting point both the contents of textbooks, and the many ways that students access them now and in the future, and the frustrations (especially over costs) that are propelling many of the new models. Discontent is the spur of change, and both are evident in not-so-equal measure regarding textbooks as we begin a new decade. What’s clear, though, is that innovation now provides some welcome relief. The challenge is to determine what makes the most sense for one’s institution. Hopefully these posts will help.

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