News and Insights on College Textbooks, Course Materials & Bookstore Services

Akademos
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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.

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A Textbook Rental Program Like No Other

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).

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Customization and the (Part-time) Educator

I remember a conversation with an educational publishing executive I had ten years ago, when I first started Akademos. At the time, I was enamored with the idea that emerging technologies allow for new ways to customize course materials. Print on demand capabilities, for instance, even back then were at a point where one could imagine each instructor becoming the editor of his or her own anthology—not simply a classroom reader but an actual paper-bound or even hard cover collection. A lot of my enthusiasm stemmed from my experience at Cornell. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently the Cornell bookstore was a pioneer in creating custom course materials (whereas I thought it was available most places). Teaching there both as a grad student and then briefly as a professor, I made good use of the service. So when I approached the publishing executive, I had a lot of excitement about what the latest technology could do in this area.

This executive, though, quickly brought some sobriety to my enthusiasm. “Custom materials,” he said, “make up perhaps 3% of class room materials. And you’d like to grow that to, say, 5% or 6%? It’s a boutique business.” The vast majority of course materials, he argued, will remain traditional textbooks for organizational rather than technical reasons: most faculty simply want the materials pre-packaged.

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HEOA: Triumph of the Alternative

If you’re a college student or the parent of one who pays for her books, here’s a reason to celebrate with fireworks a little early: Today marks the day that the Higher Education Equal Opportunity Act goes into effect. While the federal legislation covers a range of issues associated with the costs of post secondary education, what’s particularly noteworthy is the requirement that higher ed. institutions of all kinds are required to publish course book lists (including the ISBNs) in their course catalogs and registration in order to help students and parents shop around for the best purchasing options.

Non-compliance puts in jeopardy federal funding of any type the school or its students receive, and so these institutions have scrambled right up until today’s deadline to meet the requirements. (Schools that we work with are already in compliance because our service includes an integrated course catalog and book list with all the required information).

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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.

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