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Etextbook Update
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Posted On March 4, 2013
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I’ve been regularly covering news of digital textbooks for several years. It is now a market in such flux, with so many developments, startup launches, reports of research, publishing company restructuring and mergers, and more, that it warrants revisiting frequently. This is a review of some recent noteworthy developments and a discussion of a report on student acceptance.

Industry consultant, Michael Cairns of Information Media Partners, speaking last week at the NFAIS conference, reviewed the events in the second half of 2012. “[W]e saw a slowdown in the growth rate of eBook unit sales; indications of a possibly significant substitution of tablets for eBook readers; a reconfirmation in several examples of a lack of enthusiasm by students for eBook based learning; a major strategic publishing merger destined to create a trade publishing goliath [Random House and Penguin Group]; and the sale of one of the big three education companies [McGraw Hill Education].” 

Just last week came word that textbook publisher Cengage Learning Inc., owned by Apax Partners Ltd., has held discussions with restructuring advisers as it faces the “twin reckonings of decreased demand and burdensome debt.” Cairns reports that “there has been widespread speculation that some merger of Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education will take place this year, since the two companies may end up with a common owner.”  

As for 2013, Cairns says we may see more significant change than we’ve seen in many recent years. “In education, we may be paying attention to McGraw-Hill and Cengage but Pearson, as the market leader, is likely to embark on even more aggressive strategies this year. Under its new CEO, and with the divestiture of Penguin and possible sale of the FT Group, the company has forcefully declared education to be its focus.”  

The intertwining relationships of these textbook companies has been quite interesting. Cengage and McGraw Hill have been partners in a venture called CourseSmart begun in 2007—along with Pearson, Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan), and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Over the years, the company has added many more publishing partners—SAGE Publications, Edinburgh University Press, Taylor & Francis, and others. CourseSmart sells digital replicas of etextbooks and now has a fairly impressive catalog. CourseSmart says its eTextbooks can be purchased for an average of 60% less than print textbooks, and offer user tools such as search, highlighting, note-taking, and print capabilities that enhance productivity. CourseSmart’s eTextbooks can be read on any browser–enabled computer or mobile device and come with the ability to transfer individual chapters or the entire book offline. 

Alternative Options

In late 2012, Flat World Knowledge announced that it was eliminating its free etextbook option as of Jan 1, 2013. The early adopter of the free and open textbook model remains committed to access and affordability and still hopes to disrupt the textbook publishing market by offering the Study Pass option for the modest sum of $19.95 (online book, plus study and note-taking features), plus other options including print. The company says that Flat World textbooks are being used in more than 4,000 classrooms at 2,000 schools worldwide. Its catalog has more than 115 titles.

And there actually is a project by Andy Schmitz that has archived Creative Commons-licensed copies of the Flat World Knowledge books that were available online at the end of 2012. From its beginning until the end of 2012, Flat World Knowledge licensed all of its books under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license, allowing anyone who so desired to copy them, give them away, or modify them, as long as they acknowledged the authors, released the copies under the same license, and didn’t do so for commercial gain. The books are also available at the Internet Archive.

Kno, founded in May 2009, is a company that partners with educational publishers to convert a flat file or a PDF into multimedia-enriched interactive content. (To see a sample textbook, click here.) Users can purchase a book from Kno, either through the Kno.com Online Bookstore or the In-App Store for iPad, Android, and Windows. (The Apple iBooks platform lets authors create interactive ebooks but only for the iOS platform.) Kno recently announced Advance, an Interactive Learning Platform. The company says it has worked with more than 80 publishers and offers more than 200,000 interactive textbooks for K-12 and higher education students—reportedly at 30%-50% off. Publishers include Pearson, Wiley, Elsevier, Macmillan, Wolters Kluwer, and many more.

“Working with Kno, the process of converting our print titles to highly interactive eBooks has been seamless,” said Kurt Strand, chief product officer, McGraw-Hill Higher Education. “Now, using Kno’s Book Enhancer, we are able to enhance or update our eBooks virtually instantly. The process of defining interactivity is literally the same as creating it with Kno.”

Inkling is a 4-year-old start-up that transforms bulky textbooks into an interactive experience for the iPad and other tablet devices. Recently the company announced Inkling Habitat, a cloud-based collaborative publishing environment that lets anyone make professional-looking digital books. Pearson Education (which is an investor in Inkling), HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill, Elsevier, and Wolters Kluwer are some of the publishers who are using Inkling’s Habitat. Inkling also announced support for Creative Commons licenses in Habitat, which enables users to publish open content, including open educational resources, and distribute it free with a single click.

The Student’s Perspective

Despite the bold statement that Arne Duncan, U.S. education secretary made in October 2012, “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” there’s still considerable debate about whether students like using digital versions. Clearly there are many advantages to etextbooks—no heavy tomes to carry, ability to read on multiple devices, cheaper to buy/rent, easier to update, ability to have embedded audiovisual content, interactive features, and user tools. But not all etextbooks offer all these features or ease-of-use. Some are still merely PDF replications of printed texts.

However, most important are the actual adoption numbers by students. A recent study, “Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education,” January 2013, from the Book Industry Study Group, revealed that student acceptance of etextbooks is lower than expected. The study showed that “students’ preference for print over digital texts dropped from 72% in November 2011 to 60% in late 2012. During the same period, preference for online homework systems (MindTap, MyLab, McGraw-Hill Connect, etc.) rose from 9 percent to 14 percent. The picture isn’t entirely rosy for digital texts: satisfaction with these works declined in 2012, with only 26% of students citing they were ‘very satisfied’ with their digital text, down from 30% in 2011.” 

“Students are warming up to digital textbooks, but they’re also becoming more discerning in what they get. Simply transferring a print textbook to a digital format doesn’t work with this crowd,” said Angela Bole, deputy executive director of BISG. “This is a market that’s tremendously dynamic and changing rapidly. It’s essential to watch it closely.”

Cairns also pointed out the possibility of an evolving scenario.

But it is still early days. We will see an aggregation model emerge in education, where content ‘platforms’ deliver content and services based on a different financial model than the current retail or ‘student buys the book’ model. Publishers are being pushed by some important customers: Initiatives underway in California, Minnesota and Indiana for example show that experimentation is starting to happen with more frequency and publishers are being challenged to think differently about their market.

See also Marydee Ojala’s recent article, “Etextbooks - what's not to like?” Her final comment: Etextbooks that are static have little to recommend them to the academic community. It’s innovation, effective exploitation of technology to encourage an interactive learning environment, and insertion into learning systems that will boost the acceptance of etextbooks.”


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

Email Paula J. Hane

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Skip McWilliams4/26/2013 12:07:26 PM

One dollar eTextbooks are a reality. Our pilot program has over 650 High Schools participating in the first 60 days. The program is called "VOCES". For the pilot, we introduced "VOCES" Spanish I (voces1.com). We are rolling out "VOCES" Spanish II, "VOCES" High School English Writing and Grammar, "VOCES" High School English Literature, and "VOCES" American History this summer. All of our eTextbooks are HTML5.

My company, Teacher's Discovery, has been selling supplementary didactic materials to virtually every high school and middle school in America for over 27 years. I see no reason why eTextbooks need to cost over a dollar a kid per year.

The books are outstanding. Want to look? Visit Voces 1.com
Teachers like it that everything is in one place without extra purchases necessary. "It's so real. This is where we need to go," says one teacher.

Skip McWilliams
President, Teacher's Discovery

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