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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

A Threshold Year For eBooks; eTextbooks…not so much

Posted by Brian Jacobs on January 9, 2012

The digital turn in publishing became more acute in 2011 as readers took to Kindles, iPads, and other tablets. According to Amazon, over the past year, the sale of digital books for Kindle surpassed those of print copies. This is astonishing growth for a device that itself is only four years old and confirms that the world of publishing is currently undergoing an extraordinary transformation—a transformation that is affecting not only how reading materials are delivered and used but also how they are produced and maintained (see, for example, this recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the future of the digital text as a perpetually unfinished work).

And yet one could be forgiven for thinking that this digital publishing transformation has somehow bypassed the textbook market. While general readers were clamoring for Kindles and iPads, sales of digital textbooks last year remained at less than five percent. Ninety-five percent of students purchasing or renting textbooks last year chose to use the old-fashioned technology of the codex despite the fact that the digital versions are usually cheaper. And as more students in 2011 purchased or rented from third party online alternatives, this also meant that they typically preferred to wait for these physical materials—often receiving them after classes had begun—rather than have immediate access to a digital version.

How so? Why are general readers embracing digital books while most students still shun them? Students, and people of college and high school age generally, already read copiously on screens—Facebook, articles, email and text chats, and use the Internet as their primary reference tool. They, more than their parents and grandparents—the age demographic groups that are really driving Kindle sales—should be the ones far out in front of the digital text wave. So why aren’t they? And is this a trend we’re likely to see continuing through 2012?

As I’ve noted previously, students need to feel that the value of the digital alternative is higher. It’s not about price alone, but also about the relationship between the cost of materials and the perception that they will improve academic outcomes. Over the next series of posts, I’ll examine why eTextbooks did not win favor with students in 2011 but also the considerable shifts currently underway that indicate perhaps a different result in 2012.

Topics: Commentary

Should OER Be Free?

Posted by Brian Jacobs on October 24, 2011

This week I’ll be attending and speaking at an interesting conference on open education resources taking place in Park City, Utah: http://openedconference.org/2011/

Here’s the title and summary of my talk; after the conference, I’ll post the talk itself along with any comments from the discussion that follows.

Is Academic Recognition Sufficient Incentive to Create Open Source Courseware?

One central assumption in the OER movement is that high quality content can be developed without necessarily introducing a financial motivation for academic authors to produce such materials. Such is the view, for example, of the Connexions Consortium. Academic recognition and the ability to establish a professional reputation, the reasoning goes, are sufficient motivation among many faculty to consider contributing to the rapidly expanding pool of OER texts. Some academic institutions, moreover, will consider OER publications in the tenure review process, providing perhaps the greatest incentive to produce first rate work without additional compensation.

To be sure, there are notable exceptions to this OER content model. For-profit companies, such as Flatworld Knowledge and Textbook Media, and non-profit (foundations, government) sponsorship of OER production, provide financial incentives. The for-profit companies, however, are far more restrictive on the use and distribution of their content than is a truly open source platform like Connexions. Non-profit sponsorship of OER materials is in an early stage and it is still unclear the level of sustained backing for such projects. For the entirely unfettered OER content, then, the OER movement assumes that high quality content will be produced much like crowd-sourced projects, such as Wikipedia, with the added difference that primary authors would be recognized as such.

I would like to suggest that this is a mistaken assumption and that the OER movement would benefit by conceiving of an OER content development model that provides for ongoing compensation to its authors while also adhering to the most open form of the Creative Commons license. What’s needed, in other words, is a Connexions Consortium with a revenue component. The organization might still be non-profit but not the authors who are creating the works. The OER movement holds great promise but in order for it to be a sustainable alternative to traditional sources it must insist on the highest possible standards for academic content. In order to do this, it must incent the greatest number of potential contributors to participate.

The “recognition” model certainly inspires some authors to contribute, but if you are an author already with tenure or at an institution that does not consider introductory textbooks for tenure review, then you have to be highly motivated to contribute to the public good as an end in itself. Of course there are faculty committed to the project in this way but they are a very small group of the available talent. As great as the potential is for OER, it faces two integrally linked obstacles: convincing prospective faculty adopters of these materials on the grounds that they are equal to or better than those from traditional sources, and convincing first-rate faculty authors to produce it. The former, of course, depends on the latter. And unless the OER model is sufficiently broadened to include a financial incentive that would appeal to a large portion of prospective faculty authors, the movement will not realize its extraordinary potential.

Topics: Commentary

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

Posted by Brian Jacobs on August 23, 2011

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.

Topics: Commentary

Backlists, Bestsellers, and eCommerce: How the Recent History of Publishing Has Set the Conditions for Digital Distribution

Posted by Brian Jacobs on April 4, 2011

To contemplate where the market for digital classroom materials may be heading, it’s helpful to consider the recent history of trade books. As Jason Epstein has recently recounted, the main revenue and profitability for traditional trade publishing—general consumer and professional titles—had long been centered on backlists: for while these older titles individually may not have sold many copies at any given time, the vastness of the backlist titles assured publishers of a steady stream of revenue from the collection in aggregate.

Trade publishing, then, to use a more fashionable term, was largely a “long tail” business. As Epstein points out, this changed rapidly beginning in the 1980s as bookstore chains pushed out small bookshops. The bookstore chains are discounters and often occupy expensive suburban real estate (such as shopping malls). Unlike the small bookshops that they replaced, the chains’ business depends on moving books in high volume. And so while publishers were preoccupied with the tail, the dominant booksellers focused on the head, that is, the bestsellers. Publishers have likewise adjusted their business to accommodate this new reality and now we find that a very large portion of revenue from the major publishers comes from a relatively small group of hit titles.

Internet sales were, of course, non-existent in the 1980’s and hardly noticeable through the 1990’s when these dramatic shifts took place. Yet it is crucial to recognize, as Epstein does, that online book retailers—beginning with, but no longer limited to, Amazon—stepped in to fill the role of selling the backlist catalog. The vastness of the online retailers’ catalogue (our own includes more than six million titles) meant that publishers would once again have viable channels for backlists. To be sure, the early days of ecommerce still could not return publishing back to the pre-1980’s, if only because, even today, it accounts for a minority of book sales.

The educational publishing business is a crystalline form of the trade publishing industry: while trade book publishing has consolidated and the most profitable titles have narrowed, this is even more strongly the case in educational publishing. After consolidating in the past thirty years, the core textbook business is now dominated by five large publishing houses each competing for adoption of high volume introductory classes of the most popular subjects, with a special focus on the high enrollment institutions—a competition so intense that some, for example Pearson Education, maintain two distinct imprints (Addison Wesley and Prentiss Hall, each with separate management) just so that they can always have at least two dogs in the race in the key adoptions.

Seventy five percent of the roughly 16 million college students in the US attend just 500 colleges and this is the focus of textbook publishers’ efforts. Today, their higher education business depends on the lifecycle of adoption and planned obsolescence (edition changes every two or three years, often primarily to reduce used textbook sales) in introductory classes at 500 schools.

Like trade book publishing, this transformation of educational publishing took place with little regard for ecommerce, much less for a digital “turn.” For both trade and educational publishing, the forces that shaped them into their present form were “on the ground”—in the shopping malls and on the campuses, respectively, long before they were inscribed with the epitaph “bricks and mortar.”

Ecommerce has enabled backlists to enjoy a revival; there’s little doubt that, as a second phase, digital distribution—ebooks for the trade industry—is furthering this revival. So far, however, the effect of ecommerce on educational publishing has largely been a negative one, for it has made the used book market, rental programs, and textbook exchanges more efficient. And while this has done a lot to lower costs for students this efficiency has come at the cost of forcing publishers factor in ever-greater used book sales when pricing, and planning the production for, their own materials.

Will traditional educational publishers reinvent themselves in order to embrace the technological changes that threaten their business model? It’s certainly an opportunity open to them but the history of technology suggests otherwise. As Epstein notes, “Technological change is discontinuous. The monks in their scriptoria did not invent the printing press, horse breeders did not invent the motor car, and the music industry did not invent the iPod or launch iTunes.”

In Epstein’s view, “A separate, self-financed, digital industry will coexist with and over time replace many functions of the traditional [publishing] firms as the logic and the economies of digital technology increasingly assert themselves.” While it’s unlikely that traditional educational publishers will be replaced on a large scale in the near term, there are abundant opportunities emerging now for new entrants in this market and I believe that some of these—to benefit of all the members of educational institutions—will be successful.

In my next post, I will take up what this digital industry might look like for educational content. Educational institutions—its administrators, faculty, and staff—are not usually early technology adopters. In my view, however, the digital wave now upon us can fundamentally change the perceived value of the content such that considerations for budgets, academic excellence, and student demand will conspire to open an entirely new way of producing, accessing, and using classroom materials.

Topics: Commentary

Course Materials in the Age of Digital Distribution

Posted by Brian Jacobs on March 8, 2011

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.

Topics: Commentary

A Textbook Rental Program Like No Other

Posted by Brian Jacobs on August 3, 2010

Today marks a significant step in the evolution of the textbook market. The online retail sales of new and used textbooks started things off in the late 1990’s and this was followed soon with the integrated peer-to-peer marketplace in the early 2000’s; Akademos was likely the first company to offer this (Amazon’s own version came out about six months after our launch).

For a few years now, there has been a lot of buzz about online textbook rentals. This back to school season promises to be the most heavily marketed period for textbook rentals ever, despite the fact that one has good reason to wonder, as people often do, whether it is cheaper to rent or to purchase through a marketplace like TextbookX.com (especially if one takes into account the re-sale value of a marketplace purchase).

Still, there’s little doubt that renting textbooks is a valuable alternative in many cases. But if so, why did rental appear now when the possibility for it has existed since the beginning of internet sales? One of the major reasons for the emergence of textbook rentals today is that, just like marketplaces before it, this service relies on, and presupposes, the infrastructure of online textbook sales. The extensive network of vendors who now buy and sell books directly online form the basis of today’s online rental programs. Instead of warehousing all the books for such a program, companies that offer this service try to connect buyers and sellers, much as a marketplace does—but with the added step of shipping the book from the renter/consumer rather than simply to her.

Today’s online rental programs, then, depend on mature marketplaces. Because of that, however, two unknowns emerge: The rental service can promise to deliver the book that you’ve ordered (according to title, ISBN, etc.) but it can’t promise to deliver a specific copy—the extent of the highlighting, the seller’s notes about condition, and even whether the book is new or used are all hidden from the renter. Second, and following from this, one also doesn’t know the cost to buy that particular copy and how close in price it might be to the rental fee. The process, in other words, is at once dependent on a network of buyers and sellers and yet remains a rather dark pool.

In launching the first marketplace for textbook rentals, Akademos aims to introduce transparency into the offering by showing prospective purchasers and renters the descriptions of the actual books that they select and what the prices for the books would be as both a purchase and as a rental, side-by-side and for all to see. Another first. Akademos is now the only company that offers students and schools the coverage of new, used, rental, eBook, custom, marketplace purchase, and marketplace rental. Our goal is to remove the cost of textbooks as an obstacle to students in their educational pursuits; a textbook rental program is a natural next step toward achieving that.

Topics: Commentary