October 24, 2011 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

Should OER Be Free?

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?

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August 23, 2011 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

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.

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April 4, 2011 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

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

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.

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March 8, 2011 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

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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August 3, 2010 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

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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July 28, 2010 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

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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