The Radical Transformation of the Textbook

From Wired:

For several decades, textbook publishers followed the same basic model: Pitch a hefty tome of knowledge to faculty for inclusion in lesson plans; charge students an equally hefty sum; revise and update its content as needed every few years. Repeat. But the last several years have seen a shift at colleges and universities—one that has more recently turned tectonic.

In a way, the evolution of the textbook has mirrored that in every other industry. Ownership has given way to rentals, and analog to digital. Within the broad strokes of that transition, though, lie divergent ideas about not just what learning should look like in the 21st century but how affordable to make it.

. . . .

Pearson is one of the biggest publishers of educational books in the world, with a roster of 1,500 textbooks in the US market. Last month, it announced that going forward it would adopt a “digital first” strategy. It’ll still produce physical textbooks, but students will rent by default with the option to buy after the rental period ends.

“Our job is to provide the very best content with the very best learning outcomes at the very best prices for students that we can,” says Pearson CEO John Fallon. “This model enables us to do that.”

. . . .

It also enables Pearson to staunch the bleeding caused by an explosion in the second-hand market. A company called Chegg launched the first major online textbook rental service in 2007; Amazon followed suit in 2012. Both advertise savings of up to 90 percent off the sticker price. And that’s just two examples. In fact, the market has spent the last decade in something of an unvirtuous circle. As students flock to more affordable options, textbook prices have skyrocketed to make up for the lost revenue. The price of textbooks has increased 183 percent over the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Students started to reject the expensive textbooks. What they did, since they had no other choice, was find ways to save money on textbooks,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of educational publisher Cengage. “The volumes of textbooks publishers were selling declined rapidly for years. However, they always had this magical price lever. They could always just increase the prices, so their revenue looked relatively stable.”

. . . .

Pearson’s digital-first strategy is a significant step toward a more sustainable business model. Under the new system, ebooks will cost an average of $40. Those who prefer actual paper can pay $60 for the privilege of a rental, with the option to purchase the book at the end of the term. The price of a new print textbook can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars; under digital-first, students have to actively want to pay that much after a course is already over, making it an unlikely option for most.

The benefits to Pearson are self-evident. More than half of its revenue comes from digital already; this move accelerates that transition, while providing substantial savings in printing overhead.

. . . .

“Up until now the product development cycle and the revision cycle were still driven by essentially the way the world has been the last 40 years,” Fallon says. “From now on all updates will be digital first. If there’s a scientific breakthrough, a compelling business case study, developments in contemporary politics or world events, you don’t need to wait three years. You can, from one semester to another, update content.”

. . . .

“We are finding that even though undergraduates prefer to read digitally, these preferences aren’t actually showing positive or even equalness in terms of effect on comprehension,” says Lauren Singer Trakhman, who studies reading comprehension at the University of Maryland’s Disciplined and Learning Research Laboratory. “When it comes to things like pulling details, key facts, numbers, and figures, participants are doing a lot better after reading in print.”

Not only do students retain less when reading digitally, Trakhman says, they’re more likely to overestimate how well they comprehended the material. And that’s before you take into account that students reading a textbook on a device do so amid a barrage of notifications that pull them away from the material. Even without those additional distractions, which Trakhman rules out in her research, students read more quickly and less deeply. They reread sentences less. And even when an ebook layout mimics that of a physical textbook, they move around the page less, potentially missing important diagrams, sidebars, or other supporting materials.

“Digital text, digital work, is often engaged with at a lower level of attention. By moving everything online, it’s going to become even more decontextualized. Overall, I think there’s going to be less deeper learning going on,” Trakhman says. “I believe there’s a time and a place for digital, but educators need to be mindful of the time and place for using these resources. Rolling out these digital suites is not really the best for student learning.”

. . . .

Just as traditional software has a thriving open source community, textbooks have Open Educational Resources, complete textbooks that typically come free of charge digitally, or for a small fee—enough to cover the printing—in hard copy. And while it’s not an entirely new concept, OER has gained momentum in recent years, particularly as support has picked up at an institutional level, rather than on a course by course basis. According to a 2018 Babson College survey, faculty awareness of OER jumped from 34 percent to 46 percent since 2015.

One of OER’s leading proponents is OpenStax, a nonprofit based out of Rice University that offers a few dozen free textbooks, covering everything from AP Biology to Principles of Accounting. In the 2019–2020 academic year, 2.7 million students across 6,600 institutions used an OpenStax product instead of a for-profit equivalent.

. . . .

Harris also argues that while OpenStax updates materials annually as needed, it doesn’t do full revisions just for the sake of it. “Our physics book, which we published in 2012, we haven’t done a revision yet, and we don’t want to,” he says. “The laws of physics haven’t changed for the last eight years, I can guarantee you that.”

. . . .

OpenStax alone counts around 50 ecosystem partners to provide homework and testing support. Faculty can choose the one that best suits their needs, versus being locked into Pearson’s platform when you buy a Pearson textbook.

“You pick what’s best for your course,” says Harris. “We have open license content that you can adapt, and then you can pick and choose from five or six online homework platforms that better meet your curricular needs. That’s getting more flexibility, more innovation, at a much lower price.”

Link to the rest at Wired

9 thoughts on “The Radical Transformation of the Textbook”

  1. “Our job is to provide the very best content with the very best learning outcomes at the very best prices for students that we can,” says Pearson CEO John Fallon. “This model enables us to do that.”

    ‘Our job is to extract as much cash from each and every student for the least amount of effort on our part, and to ensure that no other student will be able to use that same material without paying us the full price for it. Partnering with instructors and forcing the students to buy our offerings enables us to do that.’

    • Normally not (that DRM thingy they so love), but even if you could, they’ve tied it to codes needed to do some of the work online – which can’t be sold/transferred/used by someone else – making it worthless to anyone taking the class that needed that ebook.

      Which is why we’re hearing about instructors making up their own books/ebooks for their classes, or choosing books that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

      I’m trying to remember, but I seem to also recall Pearson trying to force certain subjects to have to use their books at the school level – rather than letting the instructor decide (the better to bring in more of that student cash.)

  2. Tweet! *throws down a BS flag* The average price of textbooks might be $40, but the US government textbook I priced in January cost $160 per e-copy.

    I don’t know if it could be printed, because I had to purchase a print copy for my own use to preview the text.

  3. I know of one instructor in the engineering field that has his students use Army training materials and manuals. They’re free and cover a wide range of subjects.

  4. When I went to law school, one professor detested the textbook prices so much that he made his own text for every course he taught. The law school had its own print shop in the basement. I went there to get my text, paid my $20, and was told to return in an hour. An hour later I picked up a 3-ring binder with 200+ pages. No resale value, but, hey, it was only $20. I paid $82 for the cheapest second-hand text I used.

  5. The Pearson text I used could not be printed (or maybe a page at a time could) and it did not have any print version available all. Sometimes students could get a PDF, for major more cash, but not always (and I never understood why).

    For reasons I don’t understand most of my students (age range 16-22) prefer print books, even for fiction. The Pearson rep kept arguing with me about the brain science (her words), and how the Pearson model increases their retention (the hot key buzzword in community colleges right now, even tho she clearly didn’t know what that means), and I kept replying that only works if they READ it, and all you’re doing is putting another roadblock between them and the material.

    Between Person’s change and our bookstore being contracted to B&N, which is its own headache, I finally gave up and switched to a book by Norton. I really liked the textbook I’d left behind but couldn’t take the hassle anymore. So Person lost somewhere between 200 – 300 sales a year just from my classes. And I’m just one instructor in one smallish community collage in WA state. We alone have 17 community colleges…

    And, yeah, that $40-60 is a joke. Mine cost $70 just to rent, used. New, they ran $150. But the students could use the one book for both sections of American History and they could sell them back at the end. Sigh.

    I’ve considered writing my own but that’s a massive amount of time to put toward something I’m not even tenured for, and I could use that time writing fiction, thank you very much. 🙂 Fiction will get me out of poverty-level income much, much faster.

  6. Hah. Just bought textbooks for my five classes today.

    Pretty stoked that two of them were available for the Kindle @ $12.99 each (two Creative Writing textbooks, paper versions were only $20 each).

    Then I noticed I can now rent textbooks a hell of a lot cheaper than buying the paper versions. Intro to Astronomy was $160, but I rented it for $80. An English class book was $120, but I rented it for $48. Both from Amazon, and both give free return shipping at the end of the semester.

    The only one I couldn’t get used or as a rental was a Human Geography text for $140-ish, no matter where I looked. So I’ll just grab it from the campus bookstore with my financial aid.

    Waaaay better than a decade ago when I last went to college and textbooks were ungodly expensive. Thankfully one of my courses doesn’t have any assigned textbooks, and next semester I will take 18cr but only need textbooks for two classes.

    Anyway, I shopped around at a number of textbook outlets, but Amazon was either always the cheapest to buy or to rent, and when it wasn’t, it was a few bucks difference, but Amazon also gave me Prime for 6 months for free with my .edu address, which made the few dollars difference nil or worth it.

    Stoked about having some textbooks on my Kindle. But I already know certain textbooks wouldn’t translate well to my Paperwhite like these two English – Creative Writing books. My Astronomy textbook is a good example… It would be an awful experience, probably even on a Kindle Fire as well.

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