Constructively Disruptive: Digital Distribution and the New Model for Educational Content

The growth of the digital distribution of course materials should be thought of as a development that’s quite distinct from the emergence of digital content as such. Physical textbooks, after all, begin as digital documents, just as, for instance, a faculty classroom handout might start off as a Word document. And, for the most part, the textbooks that traditional educational publishers offer as “eTextbooks” are really just PDFs of the original production files intended for print production. On the flip side, publishers of digital materials—that is, of materials that are produced initially with the intention that they be viewed on a screen—typically also have a print capability. Our newest partner, Flatworld Knowledge, for instance is an eTextbook publisher that also offers physical books.

The most salient example of this point, however, is the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. OER, a definition of which can be found here, is one of the most exciting areas in digital course materials; to my mind, it will occupy an increasingly large position among these materials and has the prospect of shaping the industry. And yet, for all their promise, the question of whether students and faculty use these materials as digital files or as physical books is, to their producers and supporters, fairly irrelevant. The Connexions Consortium, the leading repository for OER materials, reports that about 50% of students who use these materials request print copies—a fact that the Consortium reports with indifference, since its sole measure of success is the number of people actually using the materials, regardless of their form.

What’s interesting about the move to digital distribution, then, is not whether the materials are actually read as digital or physical documents but rather, to borrow an old-fashioned term, whether this heralds a new means of production. As the incipient rise of the OER movement has already shown, digital distribution has the capacity to change the economics of the industry. Foundations, states, and the federal government now well understand that a dollar contributed toward the production of course materials can save $10, $20, or $50 on the purchase costs of these materials through traditional means. This could make the textbook market far more efficient than it is today and save students and government loan programs billions of dollars. The rise of digital distribution in the form of OER, much more so than digital classroom content itself, is emerging as the most productively disruptive force in the textbook industry.

This is not to minimize, of course, the production of new forms of digital content. There are quite a number of exciting developments of materials that are native to and destined only for the digital medium, and that have no analog as physical texts. App-specific texts for tablets, such as those from Kno and Inkling, are the principal example of this. But their source materials, derived through the traditional production process, still leave them encumbered with the costs and copyright issues of the pre-digital days. It’s likely that, as in so many other areas of technological advances, a new distribution means is creating the possibility of rethinking the entire way (economically, organizationally, legally) that course content is produced. And once this new basis is laid, we can and should expect fantastic new forms of classroom content to emerge.

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