Brian Jacobs

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The eTextbook Bust

Posted by Brian Jacobs on September 24, 2012

The final report on a major digital textbook pilot appeared recently and, because I wanted to study the document closely, mark it up with scribble unintelligible to anyone but its author, I immediately printed it out. And as I did that, I felt strangely self-conscious of the act, as if I were prejudicing the report's conclusions before turning a page.

The pilot, which took place in the spring of this year and included Cornell, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the Universities of Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin at Madison, was pretty close to a complete failure. Certainly there are nuggets of encouragement but these were far outnumbered by student criticisms. One could almost sense the report’s authors straining to put the best face on the results. It’s admirable that they did not flinch from conveying students’ frustrations and disappointments with the reading materials, but the results really were worse than their concluding comments suggest.

Nowhere, for example, do the authors tell us that the pilot was financially artificial. They tell us that in all but one case—Indiana—students were actually given free access to the eTextbooks, yet this subsidy doesn’t weigh in their conclusions. Instead, we learn that the number one reason why students had any interest at all in using the eTexts is because of they were “lower cost.” Really? Low costs implies some cost and the fact that they actually had no cost only serves to make the result look better than they are. For if price is the major motivation for students, as they conclude, moving from "free" to even "low cost" will only increase resistance to their use.

The finding that cost was the top motivator for students is itself deeply problematic, not only for those heralding digital textbooks as a learning advancement, but also for commercial publishers who are striving to preserve the legacy cost structures of physical books as they turn to digital. Price alone is rarely a sufficient condition for a technological change and I don’t expect it will be one here. Instead, a panoply of learning benefits will need to accompany the economic one if digital materials are to come into their own.

The student survey results make clear that this is still some way off. Did use of an eTextbook increase engagement with course content? 21% said either “quite a bit” or “a great deal.” 35% said “somewhat” and 45% said “a little” or “not at all.” What about allowing students “to better organize and structure [student] learning”? About 25% of students thought it did. The rest, not so much. In question after question—from whether eTextbooks inspired students to read more to whether they even valued their own digital highlighting and annotations—the results are almost uniformly negative. One wonders what students would have said if they actually had to pay for the privilege.

Interestingly, the lead research finding is that only a minority of students—12%--elected to purchase physical copies. This is, however, hardly a comforting statistic for the proponents of this digital model. First, the choice for students was not likely between a free digital and a low cost print alternative, but between a free version and an expensive one (as a standard commercial textbook). Second, the 12% figure is misleading since it implies that the universe of student purchasers is 100%; but, those in the industry know that 100% sell-through is never an option unless the materials are included in the course fees. Instead, most people believe that about 1/3 of students do not buy textbooks. They borrow, share, photocopy, or simply try to do without. Remove those students from the pool of possible student buyers and it turns out that more than 18% of students who buy textbooks would have purchased a print copy if they were part of this study. Given the huge price disparity between the two options, and that price is the primary motivator, this is not supporting evidence.

Do the results of the pilot leave me pessimistic about digital course materials? Not at all. What they underscore, instead, is that several developments need still to occur for digital materials to demonstrate their pedagogical superiority over print text (for if they don’t have this what’s really the purpose?).

First, as I noted in a blog post this May, digital interactivity needs to match or exceed the physical interactivity that students enjoy. That’s not simply a matter of offering the capability to make digital highlights and annotations—which invariably feel like inadequate imitations of the real thing—but instead offering interactivity that simply isn’t available in the print world. And central to accomplishing this is faculty involvement. One of the few bright spots in the study is that students’ appreciation for the digital version shot up considerably when faculty were offering their own annotations and highlights in the texts. The problem was that few faculty actually did this. A successful digital initiative will be one in which the faculty are strongly committed to active participation in working with the course materials--when the course materials act not as passive appendages to classroom teaching but rather as direct extensions of that teaching itself; when they are less interchangeable commodities and more directly reflective of the learning environment itself (the institution or the classroom).

Second, conventional thinking about digital rights management (DRM) has to change. As a general rule, the tighter the DRM restrictions, the less appealing the technology from the user’s standpoint. In the case of digital textbooks, it likely precludes mainstream adoption. Expiration dates, and strict limitations on printing, sharing, and remixing content, are all dissuasive to students and faculty.

Third, lower pricing is not a sufficient condition for technological change--but it is a necessary one. By itself, an alternative price structure will not usher in a new era; but, there’s no doubt that it will be a critical ingredient to such change. Look at the success of the Kindle. Price discounts have been important, but if the Kindle didn’t also provide a satisfying experience for general readers, those discounts would have been irrelevant (and, in fact, the discounts were irrelevant in Amazon’s own failed pilot pairing the device with digital textbooks).

It’s uncertain whether commercial publishers have the will and the ability to change their business models sufficiently to meet these new needs. While they continue to experiment with institutionally-direct distribution models (and this digital textbook pilot is an example of that), there’s still little evidence to suggest that it represents the required fundamental change in thinking regarding DRM and costs. The lack of publisher movement in these areas has created an opening for alternative models, especially Open Educational Resources, to emerge that are now challenging the commercial model. But these alternatives have demonstrated no ability to address anything beyond cost. As such, open texts may be successfully adopted in classrooms, but they will not in their present state inspire mainstream use of digital learning materials.

What this e-textbook study and others like it tell us is that the technology of the textbook--with its physical interactivity, rich graphics, and tactile experience--raises the digital transition threshold for study materials well beyond what it is for general reading books. And that’s probably a good thing, for when the transition comes (and it will) it should be one that fundamentally changes not only course materials but the very relations of teacher, student, and text.


Topics: Commentary

How Do College Bookstores Survive?

Posted by Brian Jacobs on August 1, 2012

How is it that consumer-oriented physical bookstores—be they national chains or small independents—are consolidating, closing up in vast numbers while many college bookstores continue to enjoy remarkable resilience?   If you have wondered not only how they’ve managed this but also whether such success is likely to continue, you might be interested in an article that I just published with University Business, entitled “The Curious Longevity of the College Bookstore.” Take a look and let me know what you think.

Is the word "Textbook" obsolete?

Posted by Brian Jacobs on May 8, 2012

Matt Greenfield posted a blog entry yesterday on the Huff Post on whether it’s appropriate to continue using the word “textbook,” now that the digital transition is upon us.

It’s interesting that the word in English is the only one (that I’m aware of, at least) that doesn’t designate the book specifically as an educational object. In French, for example, “textbook” would be translated as “manuel scolaire,” scholarly manual; in German, it’s “Lehrbuch,” teaching/instruction book (the Spanish “libro de texto” is likely a neologism derived from the contemporary English word). Perhaps the origin of the word “text” stems from the use of primary source materials (that makes sense to me) but the openness of the word may actually be helpful as we make the digital transition. Precisely because it has an etymological relation to weaving, blending together, it could be flexible enough for repurposing (as it has done so already in the digital realm, as, for example, “hypertext.”) There’s also a minimalist and direct sense of the word “text”: It’s clean and dry and unencumbered.  And regardless of the many ways in which the digital transition will play out, and despite the use of video, audio, 3D simulations, and other “learning objects,” who would deny that “text,” as the written word, is still the foundation of learning and will continue to be? “Visual learning” can be a great complement that helps reinforce concepts but there’s no substitute for grasping them at a textual level.

The form of the book, called a “codex” or “block of wood” at its origin in the first century AD, is really what’s at stake here—and likely much more so than it is for general reading and novels.  The core text in digital learning inevitably, and by design, points beyond the work’s container, its borders. That’s not been the case in the early going of general reading materials, especially novels—the content that’s propelling the growth of eBooks generally. These latter are usually self-contained, mimicking the physical book experience.

One could argue that the success of digital reading in the areas of general reading, novels, etc. and its lack of success thus far in most educational circles actually mirrors that extent to which the book form holds up in the digital medium. That is, Kindles, Nooks, and the like can offer satisfying reading experiences when the content fits neatly, and in a linear way, into a discrete package—whether that package is physical or virtual. Studying in a subject area, instead, is not usually linear and so well contained in a progressive narrative. One flips back and forth between sections, writes annotations in the margins, writes out notes elsewhere.

In this sense, the textbook might be the foundation but it is always physically interactive for the student; the trick, which no one has yet shown successfully, is to create a new kind of immersive experience that isn’t merely as good as physical interactivity but actually better for learning outcomes (otherwise, why bother?). And when that emerges, which is likely but not immediate, we will indeed need to dispense with that odd construction, the textbook.

Topics: Commentary

Amazon, Apple, and the Priority of the Platform

Posted by Brian Jacobs on May 1, 2012

The federal antitrust lawsuit initiated late last month against Apple and major publishers is indeed the boon to Amazon that most view it as. As a book publishing analyst put it in a NY Times article on the story, “Amazon must be unbelievably happy…Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them.” He and others from the publishing industry see this, however, as not just a boost for Amazon but a development that portends darker days for publishers and ultimately for the reading public: “Publishers and booksellers argue that any victory for consumers will be short-lived, and that the ultimate effect of the antitrust suit will be to exchange a perceived monopoly for a real one. Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.”

Such a suggestion, I think, is misplaced because it underestimates the depth of the changes now afoot in the publishing industry. Lower eBook prices may be one effect of Amazon’s successful drive to dominate the market for eReader devices, but the company’s comprehensive distribution platform (which includes the capacity to create and manage content) helps to raise the very question of what it means to be a publisher. “Content is king” is the cliché so often used by owners of content, and new media businesses have turned that on its head. Distribution, the “platform,” now takes priority—for a sufficiently developed and mature one will attract the highest quality content available. We’re already at the point where authors, collaborators, editors—people who create content generally—no longer require the independent services of a publisher to achieve their goals. These needs—editing, distribution, marketing—can now be handled by the distribution companies themselves, as Amazon has already demonstrated with the launch of CreateSpace and its related Kindle Publishing arm. And as supportive as Apple has been of traditional publishers, it also now operates its own self-publishing unit, ibooks Author, designed especially with the educational textbook market in mind. Publishers and their analysts may one day look at this period, in which they’re worried about pricing controls within the context of traditional publisher and bookseller relations, as the last of their halcyon days.

Amazon will be dominant, to be sure, but it certainly won’t “hold all the cards.” Instead, a multiplicity of channels will emerge that allows all kinds of content creators, and the infrastructure that supports them, to have direct access to their readers and users. As announced yesterday, Barnes & Noble has enticed Microsoft to work together toward this end. While there’s good reason to be skeptical about the fruitfulness of this particular partnership, there will clearly be alternatives to Amazon. This is good news, not only for readers but for creators of content and their supporters, and for those who are excited to see human creativity channel itself into new forms of expression, as it is now beginning to do.

Topics: Commentary

The Textbook is not the Holy Grail

Posted by Brian Jacobs on April 6, 2012

The move to digital does not necessarily lower the cost of textbooks. That much has been clear in these early days of the transition. Commercial textbook publishers offer their PDF “eTextbook” versions typically at about fifty percent of the cost of the new physical book. But once the astute student considers that these digital versions usually expire—vanish—after 180 days, and once she considers that the physical copy is often available for purchase or rent through online third parties at or below the digital price, then the appeal often wanes.

Caroline Vanderlip, in her article published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, makes this point too and believes that there’s another, better way forward. She calls it the “disaggregation model,” and it’s worth considering.

She argues, first off, that “textbook affordability is the Holy Grail” and that we’re “careening Monty-Python-like” down two paths in search of it: first is the all out effort to “go digital”—simply replace physical texts on the assumption that digital doesn’t cost as much to produce. Second, the move toward open educational resources (OERs)—something I’ve blogged a bit about here—so that faculty can make use of free materials available online. The digital direction is problematic, she rightly points out, because the real costs associated with commercial publisher content lies, well, with the content—and not so much with the form of its output. To that one must add significant marketing and sales costs—not only do they remain during the digital transition but I think they’re likely to rise (as the market becomes more competitive).

OERs are still a long way off from occupying a dominant position. And while she doesn’t spell out the reasons for this, I think it’s clear that unless foundations, educational institutions, and governments—the feds, states, foreign governments—make big capital commitments to OER projects then quality will be spotty and adoption will not go mainstream. Producing high quality content is expensive—not only in terms of its initial production, but also as an ongoing and sustainable project. The commercial publishers have long known what the OER folks are only beginning to grapple with.

I hate to be a knight who says “ni,” but if there’s a “holy grail” in all this it certainly isn’t affordability. It’s not even directly the textbook. What matters are the outcomes: the learning outcome, student retention and understanding within a particular discipline, and graduation rates. What matters, in other words, is student success, however one wants to define that. And we who are concerned with course materials in particular often lose sight of that.

Textbooks today are an integral part of that drive toward success but they are obviously only one aspect of it. And within the textbook domain affordability is critically important—especially because for millions of students the lack of affordability denies them adequate access to these materials—but so too is the quality of these materials. In fact, most faculty would easily (and I’d say rightly) choose superior content that costs more over weak content that’s inexpensive or free. And an instructor would do that because she believes that the higher quality materials help lead to better outcomes.

The “disaggregation model” that Vanderlip promotes certainly has its appeal as a way of improving quality and student outcomes by focusing precisely and surgically on the material that an instructor feels her students need. In fact some faculty today are already engaged with exactly what she proposes: they cut and paste commercial content and freely available online content and offer course readers to their students. In fact, our company offers a comprehensive service to do just that. But the course reader model can only be successful if faculty are willing to take the time to curate the materials that will leave the finished product at least as good as the commercially available materials. Given the state of higher ed teaching—with more than 70% of courses taught by adjuncts or otherwise part-time help—this is a tall order.

The truth, as is so often the case, is more brackish than this. And that’s because the world of higher education is so heterogeneous: faculty within institutions have widely differing needs and views on how best to achieve successful outcomes, and institutions themselves differ so widely on these same issues. What this points to, instead, is the need to accommodate—and our company is built on this premise—a situation in which no single text solution is likely to win the day. Some faculty and institutions are moving swiftly to embrace digital; for some (within that group) OER is the promised future. For others, course readers and disaggregation makes the most sense.  And while those considerations are going on across the country, the vast majority of faculty and students respectively teach and learn by turning pages the old fashioned way.

Topics: Textbook Affordability, Commentary

Why Apple’s Textbook Initiative Still hasn’t Solved the Problem of Cost

Posted by Brian Jacobs on January 24, 2012

Is Apple now set to “disrupt” textbook publishing in the same way that they have the music industry? Will the combination of iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and the iPad have a similar effect that iTunes and iPods had a decade earlier? The features of these new applications, as demonstrated last Thursday at the Guggenheim in NY, are impressive. While some of these features already exist on the platforms of other companies, Apple’s slick single package and extensive market reach may be the catalysts that finally transform the way educational materials are produced and distributed. It’s possible, at least.

But the textbook business is not the music industry and that much was already evident at Thursday’s announcement. A decade ago, record labels were falling apart as illegal music downloading went mainstream. The 99 cent/song cost was forged under severe market conditions for the content owners. Apple helped the traditional media companies stabilize, but at the cost of cannibalizing their own CD sales.

The textbook publishers are in quite a different situation. Through practices like textbook “bundling”, frequent edition changes, and twice-annual price increases, their higher education divisions have held up relatively well.  It’s really the K-12 divisions that have suffered the most as states cut education budgets, forcing teachers and students to make do with old textbooks. What’s more, states around the country are actively pursuing “open educational resources” (OER) textbook solutions, through organizations like CK-12. Adoption of such materials, which are freely available, would obviate the need for at least a portion of commercial textbooks.  To be sure, OER’s pose a serious threat to both sides of the educational publishing business but it is a threat that aggravates an already weak K-12 outlook.

It’s no coincidence, then, that Apple’s first foray into the textbook market focuses on the business that’s hurting the publishers the most. For among the many obstacles holding back widespread adoption of digital textbooks, pricing is certainly high on the list. As such, an announcement of a new pricing model was critical for the opening ceremony and, apparently at this time, is achievable only with K-12 publishing.

And yet even the new model for this market achieves substantially less than it seems. Wall Street Journal columnist Peter Kafka suggested that the annual $14.99 textbook price in this model equates to the $75 per book he thinks school districts pay each five-year adoption cycle.  If this is right, then school districts would be paying substantially more for these materials than they are currently since there would be a hardware purchase on top of the annual content costs.  Avram Piltch, Editorial Director at LAPTOP Magazine thinks the numbers are actually far worse than that.  He points out that school districts often pay a lot less than $75 per book and hold on to them for more than five years.  As an example he cites North Carolina, which spends less than $43 on elementary texts, and less than $60 for high school—and many of these books are kept far longer than five years.  Leaving aside all the other issues iBooks2 raises for education (such as the still uncertain value of digital interactivity for addressing what ails American education), it’s hard to make the economics work at a pretty fundamental level.

The difficult irony is that the very budgetary pressures that have led publishers to try this Apple partnership also effectively preclude the possibility of wholesales purchases of iPads. Of course, K-12 schools are not uniformly under the same pressure, and what could well  emerge is a situation, as Piltch suggests, in which the wealthy school districts and the well-to-do private schools embrace solutions like this while the vast majority will need to find less expensive alternatives, and these are likely to be a long time coming.

Topics: Commentary