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Apparently, traditional educational publishers still haven’t learned that the medium is the message.

A recent article in the New York Times decries the fact that textbooks don’t work well on the iPhone:

Yes, the textbook can be digitized and displayed on gadgets that students can carry everywhere. But the iPhone version is painfully limited in its usefulness.

The story details how a San Mateo, CA, firm called CourseSmart is shoveling textbooks onto the iPhone, in cooperation with major educational publishers we know and love:

CourseSmart was founded by five major textbook publishers — Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons and the Bedford, Freeman, Worth Publishing Group — and now has a catalog of more than 7,000 eTextbook titles.

Pushing existing textbook content onto new devices isn’t about education — it’s about passive product management. Shoveling existing content into new media doesn’t take much more than a conversion effort. The message is viewed as being the same, no matter the medium.

In a separate post, Andrew Savikas, preparing for a talk at an upcoming O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, quotes from an exchange he had while preparing:

The bigger issue I see is that thinking of the problem as “how do we get a textbook onto an iPhone” is framing it wrong. The challenge is “how do we use a medium that already shares 3 of our 5 senses — eyes, ears, and a mouth — along with geolocation, color video, and a nearly-always-on Web connection to accomplish the ‘job’ of educating a student.” That’s a much more interesting problem to me than “how do we port 2-page book layouts to a small screen.”

Not aggressively exploring the possibilities of the new medium (in this case, mobile computing)  is going to quickly become a story of missed opportunities for these traditional education publishers. While Wiley and McGraw-Hill publish books about how to program iPhone applications and use iPhones, I can’t easily find an iPhone application they’ve actually produced.

The size of the potential missed opportunity is hinted at in a recent post from Alan Cann’s blog, Science of the Invisible, talking about the practice of group assessments in education. He thinks these punish high achievers and let lazy students slide by. Yet when we shovel the same content at students, we’re essentially grouping them. This approach punishes high achievers, as well:

We already give high achievers poor service all the way from secondary through tertiary education. (In primary education most high fliers are able to demand teacher time through force of personality, and if they make it to postgraduate education, they may come into their own again). So personalization seems to be the way forward as the best compromise between efficiency gain in a mass higher education system and serving the interests of individual students.

And now we have devices that allow personalized learning with feedback, real-time assessment, and tons of other options. And the education publishers are still stuck in textbooks?


On this blog, we’ve recently covered the topic of disruptive technologies, and the management trap that incumbent firms find themselves in.

I would venture this: If these education publishers don’t adapt to the opportunities of new media, especially mobile media, they may be using shovelware in a highly symbolic manner — that is, to dig their own graves.

UPDATE (8 Sept 2009, PM): Thanks to a comment from David Crotty, we find this in the Chronicle of Higher Education today, outlining how McGraw-Hill is pursuing interesting new e-textbook solutions based on insights from customers:

Edward H. Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, said in an interview that the new e-textbooks were developed based on an ethnographic investigation of student study habits done by the company. He said the company learned that students often do not study in a linear fashion, but instead jump around in the text, whether in print or electronic textbooks. “One kid in a biology class said, ‘I don’t read the chapter. I just look at the art. If I understand the art, I go on to the next art. If I don’t understand the art, I read,'” said Mr. Stanford. “When he said that, it made perfect sense to me, but until he said it, I had never thought about it that way.”

Seems like minds can change, after all. Good luck, McGraw-Hill, and thanks, David.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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7 Thoughts on "A Textbook Case of Missed Opportunities"

I think the question is more “how do we budget for creating these new types of media for what is currently a fairly small market?” People are certainly thinking about new devices, e-readers, tablets, smartphones and how textbooks will change as their use increases. But textbooks are expensive to create, and adding video, audio, links and location-aware functionality to the content is not a trivial undertaking. What are there, around 50 million iPhones sold so far? How many of those are owned by students who would normally purchase/read your textbook? Are there enough to pay for the new version of the textbook? If you’re selling to a school system, how do you get them to buy an iPhone for all their students? Are you better off investing your money and your editors’ time in something that has more potential customers than a small percentage of iPhone owners?

The other side of the problem is technological. Are you willing to tie your textbook program to one company’s device? An e-textbook that works on the iPhone won’t work on the Kindle. Neither will work on an Android phone or a Sony e-Reader, or a Palm Pre or a GameBoy or a laptop. Are you willing to go to the expense of creating 5 or 10 or 20 different versions of your e-textbook so you can cover all the potential devices? Even with a standard file format like ePub, you’re not going to have the same functionality on all devices. The iPhone has built in GPS and a compass, but the Kindle does not. How do you compensate for that? Will each student learn a different lesson depending on which device they own?

What if you invest a huge amount of money to make a Palm-specific version of your textbook and they go out of business or pull their device off the market? What happens when Apple updates the OS on their iPhones and some of your product stops working? Are you willing to hire in-house programmers to keep everything up to date and secure from malware attacks?

It’s not a simple matter of people being stuck in old ways of thinking. You’re asking for an enormous and expensive undertaking that would serve what is currently a very small, nascent and rapidly changing market. People are indeed thinking about new ways to create textbooks and new types of media, that’s not the problem, the problem is in the actual implementation.

Are you able to see the mobile traffic coming in to CSH protocols? If you are using Google Analytics it’s easy to see. That’ll give you some sort of idea as to nascent interest (many factors will impinge on that of course). FWIW, data I’ve seen is that the iPhone/Touch utterly dominates mobile traffic. Those 50 million (plus the touch – don’t forget that) are used in a disproportional manner for online access relative to just about all other phones – even the blackberry (based on data I’ve personally seen).

But to go to your broader point. This is why publishers need R&D departments. A way of investing in possibilities in a highly risk managed way. R&D can take those web stats, look at the areas of interest and see how to rapidly prototype something to test the response.
Your points about Lock-in etc are all valid (tho’ come on folks, there are plenty of examples of that particular issue in publishing!) So do not invest big sums upfront now. Recognise that instead it’s time to invest in knowledge gathering capacity so that CSH (or whoever) is able to spot the opportunity and act on it in manner based on the evidence they have collected for their particular set of constituents.

Looking at the logs from the last few weeks, traffic from Mobile Safari (versions 419, 525 and 528) is a fraction of 1% of total traffic for the journal.

While I agree on your point about having an R&D department, the reality is that it is often difficult for a society publisher or a not-for-profit to build much infrastructure along those lines. Hiring a staff of top-notch programmers is simply not feasible for many scholarly publishers. Many (if not most) publishers outsource a lot of their technological development and services. A vast number are hosted by outside companies like Atypon and Highwire. There’s good and bad in this hosting. The good is that the companies are stable and costs for R&D get amortized across a large number of journals rather than just your small program. The bad is that they’re often compared to oil tankers in that they’re slow moving and hard to turn in a new direction. The economic savings they provide result in a loss of ability to react quickly to new technologies.

I think it’s also important, as you note, to focus on specific opportunities, rather than just jumping on a new technology because it’s cool or popular. For CSH Protocols, we’ve discussed developing iPhone apps, but I’m skeptical. I know I would never use my precious shiny iPhone on the inherently sloppy biology bench, which is where our material is used. No way am I exposing my phone to organic solvents and acids, or using it with fingers covered in bacteria contaminated gloves. New technology is exciting but investing in it must be tempered with a thought toward functionality that people actually want.

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