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E-Textbook: What has really happened so far and what will happen going forward

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Takeaways from Learning Impact 2012 - Part II

Digital educational content of all sorts is always a major topic at the Learning Impact conference – and it was again in 2012.

In 2012 we had a great panel moderated by Jeff Young (of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Wired Campus blog). It featured executives from VitalSource, CourseSmart, Cengage Learning, Follett / CafeScribe, and University of Maryland University College. The panel had a provocative title: Will Apple or Anyone Reinvent the Textbook? This title was chosen to highlight that this last year saw yet another supposedly "disruptive" entry to digital content to education from Apple – the iBook – but that this is just one in a series of such products – the issue being that the adoption of digital books in education is still very low, perhaps 2-3% of the market.

Why do we focus on e-textbook at Learning Impact?

  1. Education will eventually move from paper to digital.
  2. The textbook and supplementary materials market across K-20 is large – roughly $20-25 billion U.S. annually – thus a disruptive solution here has significant market for a digital (technology) solution.
  3. Textbook costs are considered a hot button issue – with some very loud voices calling for change in terms of cost reduction.
  4. The textbook as an “organizing format” remains by far the most proven educational format preferred by faculty (despite years of advocates, including yours truly, for granular learning objects).

The number one thing that the Jeff Young panel clearly concluded in my mind is that none of the major providers see the e-textbook of even the near term future as a digitized book. They ALL believe that the market in education is for something else – something of greater value. The best example is the rise of “homework applications” (e.g. Pearson MyLabs, Cengage Brain, McGraw-Hill Homework Manager, ALEKS).  These are discipline specific online homework applications that typically bundle digital content, digital assessment & adaptive release of content based on skill level obtained.  These products have become popular with faculty as they automatically grade the online assigned homework and thus allow monitoring of student progress. They are popular with students because they provide formative feedback and ability to work at varying paces.  The IMS Learning Impact Report from early 2010 pointed to this as the highest Learning Impact product/project category.  Even the leading providers of the digital alternatives that are closest to “a digital book” all agreed that the future is coming fast in terms of features in the digital books – such as collaboration, assessment and usage tracking – that clearly go beyond a digitized book.

My understanding is that the homework applications market is growing rapidly in terms of dollar size, notwithstanding a recent report from Ithaka (see Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education) that points out some potential barriers to larger scale adoption. A related note is that University of Phoenix recently acquired a provider of adaptive math tutoring products in this same category: Carnegie Learning. I think that acquisition speaks volumes to the perceived future value of educational technology in this category.

The number two thing that is happening in e-textbooks is that there is a continued move a-foot for leading universities and colleges to foster centralized adoption of e-book alternatives, in many cases entailing price negotiations with publishers that are willing to play (for instance see Internet2, McGraw-Hill, Courseload, and Five Universities Implement eText Pilot in Spring 2012). There is essentially a new category of intermediary suppliers rising rapidly here - with IMS member VitalSource emerging as a leader, along with IMS members CourseSmart, CafeScribe/Follett and CourseLoad. Note that the business models of these organizations vary pretty substantially – but what is the same is that on the “buyer” side you have a university or college that wants to encourage digital version availability (either because digital is the chosen university format or as an option) and on the other side there are the mainstream publishers who have agreed to work with these intermediaries (for a variety of reasons – ranging from providing a full customized service to being simply the distribution platform of choice by the institution). The question that needs to be answered is how robust will the development of these centralized agreements become in a higher education world that is notoriously decentralized?

There are also niche suppliers such as Kno and Inkling which by all appearances are challenged by a lack of breadth for an institutional sale and/or a lack of deep/better content. While there should definitely be a long tail in education the reality is that selling to faculty/teachers requires substantial reach.

So, the good news is that there is no lack of competition or innovation as we move from print to digital in education. The attributes of digital products that are worthy of a price are becoming known and accepted. And, basic digital alternatives are widely available (and easy to integrate into the institutional enterprise thanks to IMS standards :-) ).

The bad news is that the thing that will really drive a tipping point in terms of conversion from print to digital - the “better digital alternative” to the printed book – does not appear to be in hand. And, it’s not clear where the motivation to make that happen will come from. Let me explain.

Teachers need a digital toolkit that is easy to use and most of all makes their job easier. When I say “their job” I mean the job of being the leader of guided discovery. Example: Everyone is talking about “flipping the classroom” for its potential to focus class time on more engaging content (than lectures). This means that the replacement textbook product is a toolkit to make flipping the classroom easy. Whether teachers are flipping the classroom or not they like to customize the materials. They like to pick a chapter here, a section there, an article there etc. In the digital world is it really easy for a teacher to do this? Teachers don’t have time to search the cloud for learning objects and put together original curriculum. They like the textbook plus supplemental material model.  Is it easy to do this digitally? No. Here’s a great blog post about application of Universal Design for Learning to Flipping the Classroom: UDL and The Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture.  Are publishers or anyone else providing teachers with a digital tool kit to make this type of teaching easy?  No.

How about students? Let’s take something as simple as reading text on computer. Is this easier than reading text in a book? No, it is not. Nick Allen of UMUC pointed out that students need the digital textbook materials on an e-reader if we really want them to read it. I have a Barnes & Noble Nook Color – and I completely love it – I would rather read a book on my Nook than any other way. However, is there a publisher out there that sells a complete course toolkit that works for teachers (lets them customize, integrate with the LMS, easily incorporate formative assignments, makes it easy to create summative assessments) and works for students in that it provides the right mixture of e-reader and computer content across a variety of platforms? No, there is not. Not even close from what I can tell. Readers please correct me if you have better information.

Another rumor at the conference was that sales of Kindle versions of textbooks is picking up substantially, despite the "low grade" content. Amazon is a major and growing threat to college bookstores.

So, whereas we see the “homework applications” really making the lives of teachers and students easier – and therefore of high value – these are at best “supplements” and not a complete alternative to paper. The alternatives we have to truly replace the textbook, well, are just not clearly better.

Educational publishers are some of the strongest supporters of IMS. I’m sure they all know much more about their business than I do. And, they are doing a lot of stuff that perhaps some of which I’m not aware of. But, my sense as an entrepreneur says that the textbook replacement opportunity writ large will come from a pretty substantial R&D investment in which publishers work closely with their primary customer (faculty) to figure out what is needed in the textbook replacement toolkit – you know, in depth usability studies, possibly with lots of the digital stuff publishers already have – and how to provide the complete solution. This may even require including the reading device in the bundle the student buys. To get to true digital replacement of textbooks, the “whole product” for "easy and better" is needed.

Sadly, I’m not sensing that any suppler – large/existing or new/entrepreneur is on to this yet. Worse, while the large publishers may have the resources for the R&D to do this, it’s not clear if they have the motivation. After all, the printed textbook is the cash cow. It’s not growing substantially, but the movement to a myriad of digital distribution channels probably provides some growth as people ending up buying the same book in multiple formats (much like we all have bought the same Beatles albums - OK I'm dating myself - many times over in the different formats).

However, for those hoping for the digital education of tomorrow, please don’t be dismayed. Industry forces are at work. I can tell you that I have seen the movement each year at Learning Impact. In some sense, IMS is playing a key role. Our technical interoperability work is all about making life easy for suppliers and users. e-textbook has been the initial killer app for IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI).  In fact, using IMS standards you can begin to pull together the pieces needed for the toolkit – and those disruptive suppliers that wish to encourage this can do so much more easily than they could in the past.  Perhaps more importantly, buyers can demand conformance to standards that keep their options open in terms of how to configure content solutions.

But, perhaps more significantly, I sense a great frustration on the part of the end user institutions: K-20. The frustration on the part of higher ed institutions has been growing steadily each year. This year we pretty much had institutions saying directly to the publishers that “we want to take advantage of better digital solutions for content and apps and either you’re going to make it happen or we’re going to make it happen without you.” Sound far-fetched? My business sense is that it is not. See "what is happening #2" above in which universities are collaborating on centralized e-textbook negotiation and distribution. It is making more and more sense for a well-resourced supplier or group of suppliers or even universities to move aggressively to digital in the future.  And, if this is true in higher education it makes even more sense in K-12 where curriculum and textbook purchases are substantially more centralized and therefore the buyer – who wants to see digital content disaggregated – has even more power. This message came loud and clear from the leading K-12 districts attending Learning Impact this year.

What about open content? This area is still of great interest to institutions although I am sensing they are more interested in self-generated content than open content. Even many school districts are generating quite a lot of digital content. Of course, this is an area when IMS standards potentially shine in that such content developed using tools that can export Common Cartridge, like SoftChalk and Blackboard, can work on other platforms as well. A related development in the marketplace that I find interesting are new programs to provide stipends for faculty developing online courses that are in essence replacements for textbooks (for example see Taking a Bite Out of Textbook Costs and Temple faculty experiment with alt-textbooks). In the early 2000’s we saw similar stipends help institutions rapidly advance online courses. Will the same happen now with respect to online content replacement for textbooks?

So, the future of digital textbooks – really content - is unfolding – a $25 billion opportunity.  It will get even more interesting. IMS will do our best to enable an open and innovative playing field.

What about Apple? Apple has so far turned out to be a non-event. Everything that has been said about education so far has simply been a ploy to sell more iPads. Hey, I have one, don’t you? We love cool gadgets! My iPad has its place next to the sofa so I can search the web when I watch TV. It may have a role to play as one of the e-reader devices mentioned above - too early to tell. Samsung has joined IMS Global and I’m hoping for great things in education from Samsung!

More on mobile in another LI Takeaway future post.

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