Textbooks 2.0: A new model for the publishing industry?

An interesting article in a recent Wall Street Journal reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had about possible directions for texts in U2.0. The article made some observations about how certain traditional products were based on making customers purchase things they didn’t really want and how digital technologies have made these products obsolete:

Photo companies made customers pay for 24 shots in a roll of film to get a handful of good pictures. Music publishers made customers buy full CDs to get a single hit song.

To me this sounds a great deal like the traditional textbook industry, where the standard texts include coverage of all possible topics, far more than could be covered in a single course.

The textbook industry is in trouble. Students are increasingly questioning the utility of purchasing texts, large parts of which the class will not use. On top of that, text prices are rising faster than the general rate of inflation.

I think we’re likely to see the textbook industry move to an i-Tunes model, where faculty (and perhaps students) can chose which pieces from a large collection of materials they want to use as the text for their course. These custom texts can be printed to order in an inexpensive format. We’re already seeing some limited moves in this direction with the custom texts of the major publishing firms, in which instructors can omit chapters they don’t plan to use, in return for a discount on the price. Open source text projects, like Connexions, are also examples of this trend.

But why stop there? Why not consider alternative formats like audio texts (a la “books on tape”) with graphics provided in a separate digital format (on CD or downloadable from a website). Why pay the expense of print if students don’t need it?

There would be some hurdles to overcome, of course. For audio books, we’d have to figure out a format for queuing up the recording where ever a student wishes.

Some years ago I tried an alternative text from DotLearn. The text was provided online with lots of interesting computer animations built in–features that simply couldn’t be provided in a print medium. The company offered an inexpensive spiral-bound printed version for people who didn’t want to read from the screen. Students didn’t like the text. They all wanted the printed text, but then many were disappointed when they couldn’t resell it. They forgot that they received the resale price and more upfront.

If we had a true digital text, we could allow multiple formats to support different learning styles and preferences.

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1 Response to Textbooks 2.0: A new model for the publishing industry?

  1. Ah, if only I’d pushed this one a bit harder 10 years ago… I regularly used to bend the publisher’s reps’ ears when they came visiting about the fact that the major Principles texts were trying to do too much, being “all things to all women”, and that a ‘modular’ text that could be ‘pick and mix’-ed by staff in different institutions to suit the idiosyncracies of their own course made a whole lot more sense.

    Actually Steve’s last paragraph concerning a true digital text to suit different learner styles/preference really struck a chord. I got my own students to take the VARK inventory test (http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp) at the start of this year for my ICT & Study Skills module, and then to report the summary classification to me so I could get a picture of the group as a whole. What was striking was the wide variety of learning styles (while they’re typically multimodal, but the combinations vary). This is something I think needs to be factored into the way we deliver our courses – not least since in the UK where I’m based, the expansion of HE in the last few years means students are a lot less homogeneous in this regard than might previously have been true.

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