Course Materials in the Age of Digital Distribution

In a post from last year, I commented on the notion that eTextbooks have been two years away from widespread adoption for the past ten years; that there have been so many proclamations of their arrival over the past decade that one could be forgiven for greeting them with resolute indifference.

In the past year, and indeed even the last several months, there have been significant material changes in the marketplace to suggest that it’s real this time. Not least of this is the fact that in the last nine months of 2010, Apple sold about 15 million iPads and created a new category (a category, to be sure, that Apple dominates today with the iPad and iPad2, but which may be eclipsed by Google’s own operating system, as has been the case for the smart phone market).

Today, eTextbooks still account for only about three to four percent of all textbook sales, but there’s now increasing evidence that this is changing, or could change, quickly.

The tablet category has finally convinced academic administrators and faculty to begin experimenting with fully digitally distributed materials. Among the schools that we work with, for example, a number (especially private high schools) are testing iPads with students and teachers; some are reporting encouraging results. We expect that early adopter schools will use tablet-based learning materials school-wide within 12 to 18 months.

But what’s the catalyst for widespread adoption of the medium?

The availability of an appropriate digital reader, or set of readers, is a necessary but insufficient cause for a large-scale shift. There will have to be more than the equivalent of the “iPod moment”. which rapidly ushered in the age of digitally distributed music. What’s needed for digital educational materials to become dominant is a change in the perceived value of the content itself to prospective adopters, and this has at least two components.

First, the material needs to use the medium in its own right; that is, it needs to make use of the capacities that a networked environment allows—everything from the use of graphical interactivity to social learning communities. For the most part, the classroom materials available today from the major publishers are simply static digital mirror images of the print copies. This is analogous to the early days of cinema, in which the first films were single shots of theater productions. Film would have gone nowhere had it not left the stage; classroom materials will likewise have to leave behind the PDF.

Second, pricing needs to be commensurate with the medium. However much people complain about the high cost of physical textbooks, there’s an understanding that the production, printing, warehousing, and logistics associated with these materials are expensive. And, correspondingly, that a distribution platform that needs none of this would be less so. It will not do to maintain relatively small price differences between digital and print; it smacks of trying to prop up a traditional distribution system with a new one.

It could be that the major textbook publishers are up to the task in addressing both sets of issues, but history suggests otherwise. In periods of revolutionary change, such as we’re experiencing in the area of classroom materials, giants are rarely able to adapt quickly enough and they leave the field open for new, nimbler, and unencumbered entrants.

Digital technology is a leveler: the barriers that alternative providers face in the world of physical distribution will fall away in the fluid, frictionless, inventory-less world. The rapid ascendance of tablet computing is now engendering the rise of a new way of using course materials. This is great news especially for students: the coming wave of classroom materials will help improve academic outcomes. The new materials make use of a broader range of pedagogical tools that were unimaginable with static texts, while at the same time increasing accessibility and therefore student use, as the cost for this access plummets.

In my next post, I will take a look at how the adoption of the digital medium could affect production of educational content.

Lastly, I’d like to alert readers of a great new blog by Jeff Cohen that you can find here.

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