Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Publishers drive higher education. has just released a new app for Android phones that promises the cheapest textbooks, new, used, online, or e-books. Yet another way for students and their parents to reduce their textbook costs, and another reason for publishers to groan. Everyone, it seems, is in the business of lowering textbook prices. The federal government has had its say, of course, in a provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which went into effect this past July. Whether it will lower prices is another question, but that was its purpose. (Details here.)

Textbook publishers are under fire. The textbook business model is groaning under the strain. There are many in higher education who predict the downfall of the big textbook publishers, their foundations eroded by bootleg .PDFs, freeware ebooks, and the now-global used book market, while the consumer expectation of superb digital experiences continues to skyrocket. They can't make the turn, I've heard whispered among forward-thinking faculty and staff. The mainline publishers are dinosaurs, and they will disappear.

It won't happen. It can't. Publishers drive higher education.

This is something I've been saying for quite a while, and not without experience. Having been the executive responsible for the creation of hundreds and hundreds of fully accredited courses on bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels, all of them online, and all of them specifically designed to capture the latest and best thinking on the subject at hand, I have had a particularly good vantage point to see the evolving role of the textbook in the digital era. Then and since then, I have opined about how the hard-copy textbook and its red-headed electronic stepchild, the .PDF, are entirely unsuitable for the rise of elearning (see previous post, the End of Book Learning).

But we can't do without them. Textbooks, or something like them, are critically important. I used to say often that the textbook is the anchor of the course development process--and by "anchor," I meant the huge heavy thing that slows down all forward progress. Generally good for a chuckle, but the reality behind that statement is that we had no choice but to be slowed down by the process of choosing, ordering, and distributing textbooks--or licensing the .PDF versions. Either approach was arduous. One or the other was necessary.

Most of our course development processes were developed on my watch. We invested a lot in these courses, but we couldn't begin to create enough quality original material to make a good textbook irrelevant. One or two of our competitors decided to create their own textbooks--a bold idea, and we explored it, but the ROI wasn't there. The quality for the dollar didn't make sense. Media, instructional design, world-renowned experts--these added value, and the return was good. But textbooks? As difficult, expensive, and technologically clunky as they were, they were still a bargain.

I'm going to posit a foundational observation that has been forming in my mind for quite a while now. If you disagree with this, let me know, but it seems to me like a bedrock truth--easy to agree with it, but hard to get to the bottom of it. It's just this: Universities create knowledge, but textbook publishers create learning.

Lots of implications. Define university knowledge any way you like, from individual faculty members publishing papers, to applied research labs fulfilling government and private-sector contracts, to pure, grant-funded research unfolding the nature of the universe. Then define learning as the process of taking that knowledge of the universe, brand new or long established, and transforming it into something teachable, something learnable by a much wider group of people.

No one is going to beat textbook publishers for rounding up and organizing, and then returning to the university classroom in a highly teachable format, the innumerable divergent, convergent, and sometimes oppositional truths in any course of study. Those who think publishers can't make the change to meaningful digital platforms are wrong. It's being done, and I've presented examples in the past. Those who believe we don't need the publishers are confusing the baby with the bathwater. None of us can afford to lose them. I jumped at the chance to join the Pearson Strategic Advisory Board because I know that there is nothing out there that can now or in the foreseeable future replace them. I chaired the IMS Global project in search of the born-digital textbook for the same reason. I figure if I can help, I will. But they've got the core capabilities in a way no one else does.

This is an age of digital product, digital experience. It takes a team to build an engaging learning experience that actually leads to some sort of predetermined learning result (yes, even a purely constructivist one). To build well something like that takes a combination of faculty, content experts, writers, media developers, instructional designers, software programmers--all with a teaching and learning agenda. Check that--not an agenda, a passion. These are the very people that make up textbook publishing companies, and the publishing process. Public universities won't do it. Online universities, even the for-profit ones that build their own courses, won't do it. Individual faculty members can't do it, not at this quality level.

Publishers drive the education in higher education. They create the foundations for learning. If they can't make the turn to digital, and make money doing it, we're all in a world of hurt. But I for one am not counting them out.

1 comment:

  1. Bryan -
    Great post, thanks.
    I've made a similar argument in a number of conference presentations over the last few years. Criticisms of textbook publishers tend to be made without an understanding of why the industry emerged in the first place (OER zealots, I'm talking to you). The historical conditions that gave rise to textbooks are, to a large extent, still in place (standardization of curriculum; lack of rewards to faculty for teaching-related activities, the need for content produced by specialists, low costs generated by economies of scale, etc) . That's not to say that the industry doesn't need serious adjustment - it does. And other than a few mavericks (e.g. Flat World Knowledge), the industry has responded to the opportunities created by technology with limited imagination. But the common argument that textbook publishers have no role in "Education 2.0" is overstated.