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Back to School: Rethinking the Textbook

Textbook cover

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Over the past few years I have been meeting with a steady stream of entrepreneurs who are determined to reshape the textbook business. While some of these new ventures are in the area of K-12 publishing (these tend to be the more ambitious schemes), most have targeted the market for higher education textbooks.

This is not surprising, as many of these individuals are themselves recent college graduates. Having just spent four years that led to the utter impoverishment of their parents, they now look back on their uninterrupted debauchery that would make Caligula blush and turn their attention to the reform of higher education. Their target? The textbook, symbol of much that is wrong with the world.

The complaints about the textbook are loud and not unfamiliar. Textbooks are boring, expensive, and heavy to lug around. But the strongest charge against the textbook is its inanimate nature: it just sits there. It lacks the media types of a feature film, the interactivity of a computer game, the social dimension of Facebook. How do you expect anyone to learn from this?

Cooler heads (which are always unwelcome) might consider the fact that people have been learning from “inanimate” texts for many years. Einstein did not have the benefit of working with Microsoft Kinect, nor did Weber’s explorations of the nature of bureaucracy partake of 3D simulations worthy of James Cameron. This is not to say that textbooks cannot and should not be improved, but we should keep matters in perspective. A significant improvement along some dimension of the textbook would be highly welcome, but it is not true that students don’t learn and that the textbook is responsible. Students do learn — and the textbook is at least in part responsible. The world works, or we wouldn’t be here.

Most analyses of the textbook by its detractors look at it in isolation. They view the textbook as they do other books — novels, say, or a celebrity tell-all. Such books are contained within their covers, or, if they are manifested as e-books, within a virtual container. A trade book is a standalone thing; it exists by itself. Among many other innovations, there are now meaningful efforts to place the experience of reading a trade book into a social context, but these attempts are still immature. In any event, these innovators imagine a book’s social reading dimension as a wrapper around the text of the book. A book thus is an experiential object of some 300 pages or so or the equivalent of 300 pages in screens.

The problem with thinking about textbooks in this way is that textbooks have always had context: the classroom, the syllabus. A textbook is not a standalone object but a component of the instructional method of a teacher. It goes without saying that some teachers are better than others and that the same book in the contexts of two different teachers can be illuminated in very different ways, but the textbook is created with a context in mind. Comparing a textbook with a trade book is like comparing a carburetor with a car.

Thus the critique of the textbook as a form is really a critique of pedagogical method. Superficially, what is being automated is the book, but the ultimate object of automation is the classroom and the instructor. A fully-realized electronic textbook would provide as much context as the library, as much interaction as the seminar, and authority equivalent to that of a teacher. The gap is beginning to close between Blackboard and Moodle on one hand and the ten-pound text on organic chemistry bulging from a backpack on the other.

The outlines of the various reform strategies for textbook are now beginning to emerge:

The industrial engineering model approaches the textbook with an eye on efficiency and cost reduction. Books cost too much, and students have to pay for them; therefore, you can build a business on lower-cost alternatives. The key is to use computer technology to drive out costs. Thus print is thrown out immediately, prices are dropped, and students are engaged via electronic means. There is already a prominent exponent of this model, FlatWorld Knowledge, whose big investment from Bertelsmann makes them a serious contender for market share.

The “sons of Wikipedia” adopt a crowdsourced model for content creation. Who is an author? What is editorial authority? Like Wikipedia itself, textbooks (not the best name for this kind of thing) can be put together by an active community that works together creating and editing content. The virtue of this model is partly economic (the cost of product development is reduced), but it also appeals to the notion that a large group of people can do a better job than a single individual.

The crowdsourcing model is not as crazy as it sounds. The academic community is in the business of developing and asserting authority — hence the high regard for authors — and crowdsourcing would seem to pull in the opposite direction, but except for texts prepared for upper-level seminars and graduate students, most textbook publishing is a reassembly of information that has appeared before. No one expects a K-12 textbook to be “original” in the sense of a breakthrough work by an author with extraordinary vision, nor are the large textbooks adopted for college freshmen and sophomores the equivalent of the new research that appears in journals or in academic monographs. Textbooks collect and synthesize the current information in a field. It is thus not a wild leap to ask a collaborative group to make this same kind of collection and synthesis. The act of creating an introduction to macroeconomics is very different from writing a novel or an examination of a still-developing situation.

We should expect to see more of the crowdsourced model, some coming from the world of OER (Open Educational Resources), where material is created and posted online for the free use of teachers and students. Such material can be assembled into different packages and serve as a base for the work of a particular instructor, who may add other material to it.

The Hollywood model for the new textbook takes the view that more is better and that multimedia is better than text. Sometimes this is true. In the multimedia model, the textbook is transformed with images and sound; the potential is to create for the learning experience the equivalent of sitting in a movie theater. In some instances such multimedia has distinct advantages over text (an animation of a palpitating heart may be more instructive than a description of the heart’s activity), though in other areas it remains to be seen whether multimedia provides greater engagement and superior instruction.  Despite the astonishingly low cost of digital media, the introduction of multimedia to the textbook is likely to increase production costs. Thus the multimedia model may be at odds with a model based on finding efficiencies and cost reduction.

The videogame model takes the Hollywood model one step further. The principle is that all textbooks aspire to the condition of World of Warcraft. Not satisfied with multimedia that presents information, the videogame method brings the student into a world of interactive learning objects. Like the Hollywood model, the videogame model is likely to drive up production costs (and is thus less likely to be used for classes with small enrollments), but it also begins to move closer to a comprehensive learning experience, encompassing the dynamic nature of the seminar as well as the informational nature of the traditional textbook. One intriguing aspect of this model is the introduction of real-time assessment: as the student works — or plays — through the material, the program determines the student’s skill and learning level and adjusts the objects presented for study accordingly. With the videogame model, the line between the traditional textbook and online courses has virtually disappeared.

The platform model seeks to aggregate various content types into a single offering. Think, for example, of Netflix, which offers a single subscription to the works of hundreds of producers. The platform model can also be developed to provide services for publishers on a common technology, as Highwire Press provides a platform for the publishers of research journals. In the aggregation option, the challenge is to amass as much content as possible. This can lead to conflicts with publishers over contracts and copyright and may lead to the invocation of Vestron’s Law, in which the publishers struggle to revert rights back from the aggregator after having initially granted them. On the other hand, if an aggregator provides enough value, many publishers, after a bout of hand-wringing, will continue to work with it, just as many publishers today continue to have ongoing but ambivalent arrangements with ProQuest and EBSCO.

The social network model attempts to put the content of a textbook into the context of social engagement, re-creating, as it were, the dynamic nature of the classroom in a virtual environment. Thus a chapter on genetics will be wrapped with tools to enable students and instructors to share and comment on information, essentially taking much of the capabilities of a learning management system and bringing them to bear on a specific text. Companies that are exploring this model generally fall into one of two camps:  those that provide content and then add a social wrapper around it, and those that provide social tools that can be used for any content that an instructor chooses.  The tools providers themselves are further divided into those that target sales to someone within an academic institution (instructors themselves or the CIO) and those that attempt to market their services to traditional publishers.  An open question is whether there is a place for new sets of social tools or whether the winning strategy will be to default to Facebook.

This taxonomy is not intended to imply that these various models are mutually exclusive. A platform company may build social tools directly into its offering, and even the most polished provider of textbook-as-interactive game may seek efficiencies through automated interfaces and a crisply designed workflow.

What I have yet to hear from any of these new and proposed offerings is an accurate description of how the college textbook market actually works. For example, the key dynamic of this industry is that students don’t choose their own textbooks; their instructors do. Thus the thrust of the industry is to persuade instructors to choose one text over another. Instructors naturally want the best for their students and choose textbooks with the finest and most advanced features. If these features drive up costs, well, it’s not the instructors who are paying for them. While some instructors are keenly aware of the costs of textbooks, the fact remains that if the people or institutions making the choices were also responsible for payment, the industry (and the products) would look very different.

It appears that the center of innovation for textbooks is likely to be outside the mainstream of four-year colleges — away, that is, from environments where the faculty calls all the shots. We should look for new developments at commercial institutions, which typically purchase texts that are then given to students, and community colleges, where many students cannot afford to purchase books at all. At these institutions a new market is evolving where the prerogatives of individual faculty members are not as broad as in more traditional schools. The long-term question is whether these emerging markets will ultimately grow and begin to influence the nature of mainstream textbook adoption.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Back to School: Rethinking the Textbook

  1. The interaction with online instruction should be useful here. There are online colleges, online courses at regular colleges, and online materials in regular classes. This is clearly a growth area, one that might be a better approach than trying to replace the textbook per se, if you can figure out how to sell to it. But every avenue is worth attacking.

    Another angle is that in early stage college science education there is a lot of action (or talk anyway) regarding moving beyond the big room lecture system. These activities might be fertile for high-tech textbooks.

    Posted by David Wojick | Sep 13, 2011, 9:16 am
  2. As for the Hollywood method–multimedia content is already fairly required for higher level textbooks. As I understand it, those selecting and purchasing the textbooks place great value on the inclusion of a DVD and/or an associated website. In practice, anecdotal evidence suggests that these items see little use from the reader. The question then, is whether it’s the nature of the material that’s unappealing, or the delivery method? If the multimedia material was better integrated with the text (in an eBook format), would it eliminate the disconnect of having to shift to a different media and resolve the usability problem? Or is having a bunch of video and audio files less useful in the textbook context than many project it to be?

    Posted by David Crotty | Sep 13, 2011, 10:07 am
  3. FYI, a good example of the platform model: http://www.academicpub.com

    Posted by Spencer Soloway | Sep 13, 2011, 10:49 am
  4. There is one other model – the “Consortium Model” with the real world example at http://elangdell.cali.org.

    In this model, schools band together in a consortium to commission authors to create educational content that is given away for free back to the consortium members or the public under a Creative Commons license. http://www.cali.org has published over 800 web-based tutorials for almost 30 years and now are getting into ecasebooks.

    Posted by John Mayer | Sep 13, 2011, 11:05 am
  5. The FlatWorld Knowledge books also fall under the “open” category as their materials all have Creative Commons licenses. For a deeper look at the sustainability of their model see: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/960.

    Posted by John Hilton III | Sep 13, 2011, 2:02 pm
  6. Textbook complaints are a red herring. The real issue is that desired outcomes have shifted for students – what was once seen more as an end in itself (what we might quaintly call “an education”) has now become simply a means of acquiring a commodity: a degree, which itself is only of value insofar as it gets you a job.

    So instead of being a resource to help students educate themselves (thanks but no thanks) textbooks have become a nuisance, hindering students from achieving their real goals – a degree, a good job – in the easiest, cheapest, most straightforward way possible. And Hollywood or low costs (as if the two could coexist) won’t change that.

    The best thing that publishers can do is simply offer a good read; just because it’s a textbook doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t have an engaging, authorial voice, something that will help students relate to and recall stories relating to their academic field; something that they can retain despite their best (worst?) intentions.

    Posted by Call me a sceptic | Sep 19, 2011, 9:12 pm
    • It sounds like you are lamenting the passing of the 19th Century. In any case, and your cynicism aside, the goal is to improve the efficiency with which knowledge gets put into heads. I call it cognitive engineering, but that is just me. The point is that it is a big market and, hey, it is my job. Speaking of which I see nothing wrong with learning as preparation for one’s work. But again, that is just me. If students are as lazy as you suggest then the need for efficiency is that much greater.

      Posted by David Wojick | Sep 20, 2011, 6:55 am
      • Who says they are lazy? They are goal-oriented ;)

        And textbook publishers are going to have to understand these realities of the market and their customers’ changing needs if they are to be successful.

        Posted by Call me a sceptic | Sep 20, 2011, 2:03 pm
        • My mistake. But I still don’t understanding the changing needs part. I got a BS in Civil Engineering in 1964. My need was to understand civil engineering. How has this changed? Or for any other discipline?

          Posted by David Wojick | Sep 20, 2011, 3:54 pm
          • The civil engineering student today, to use your example (and of course I am generalizing), doesn’t feel a need to understand the academic sub-discipline of civil engineering; they feel a need to land a well-paying engineering job. The two things are not the same.

            In fact this is perfectly resonant with a civil engineer friend of mine, who got his BS at the University of California, but found it pretty unrelated to the work he ended up doing. And it was only a with a Masters at CSU before he started getting what he felt were really applicable job skills.

            So maybe the lesson there for the textbook publisher (well-heeded in many cases), is to take a hands-on, practicable approach with their content.

            Over the years I have spoken with literally hundreds of faculty about text books – what’s good about them, what’s bad about them, how they choose the books they use, and what are the decision tipping points. I have asked a lot about price points, but also looked at evidence about whether low prices are a key variable in textbook decisions (they’re not). At the same time, I’ve seen many, many years of attempts to redefine the model through e-books, websites, online courses, interactive learning modules, etc. – and mostly they have been better at sucking up budgets than in changing learning outcomes or market dynamics.

            Students will complain about a number of things, but I really feel that the root causes of their unhappiness are at core about a drift between the product that higher education is offering, and the service that students believe they are buying.

            Sometimes you have to have certain textbook ancillaries simply as the price of admission to the market, but that doesn’t mean that your product and its related benefits to the end customers should revolve around these extras or new models. At the end of the day, it’s the well-written book from a good storyteller that will be the best seller – look at the big market-leaders such as Myers’ Psychology and Campbell’s Biology and you will find your model; not in upstarts like interactive e-books or inexpensive, no-ancillary, black and white versions of texts.

            Posted by Call me a sceptic | Sep 20, 2011, 5:51 pm
          • You seem to be claiming that one does not have to understand civil engineering in order to get (and keep) a well paying civil engineering job. Your evidence for this extraordinary claim is what? Are you saying that civil engineers do not understand civil engineering? Or that the field has advanced while the textbooks have not? Or what? This is very mysterious.

            Posted by David Wojick | Sep 20, 2011, 6:07 pm
  7. Whether or not understanding civil engineering leads to a well paying civil engineering job is beside the point here – the important thing is what customers’ (that is, students’) needs are, and whether or not *they feel* those needs are being filled. And I am arguing that if a student could get a civil engineering degree, how much civil engineering they might have picked up along the way is totally secondary to them, by and large. It’s the *degree* (and to a lesser extent, the GPA) that they feel is helping them achieve their goal of good employment, not the education they may have picked up along the way.

    (Also, it bears mentioning that civil engineering is hardly a typical degree, and student attitudes about the value of an education in civil engineering are no doubt influenced by other variables as well, including their own cultural backgrounds)

    And if you doubt this – students complain about textbook prices, right? Do they similarly complain about the prices of smart phone data plans or Air Jordans? Not that I have heard. It’s not a matter of cost, it’s a matter of value – and students by and large don’t much value education, they value the practical, dare I say secondary benefits of education, the possibility of attaining a well-paying job.

    And that is one reason why we’ve seen the explosion of for-profit, commercial universities, which are typically known for offering “lesser” educations (and who choose textbooks on pure cost, but of course they are the ones paying), but also being more attuned to their “customers’” needs.

    And this is also why “Easiness” and “Hotness” make up half of the ranking criteria at the popular student site ratemyprofessors.com.

    And don’t take this to mean I am complaining about “students today.” Rather, I am trying to make sense of changing markets, and the best ways for publishers to reach (including in educational outcomes) and gain success (market share) in these markets – which will not be found in cheaper textbooks or the “Hollywood” approach, in my estimation, but rather in telling compelling stories that students can appreciate and retain.

    Posted by Call me a sceptic | Sep 20, 2011, 8:01 pm

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