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Etextbooks Attracting Involvement of the FCC, Education Department, and Higher Ed
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Posted On February 16, 2012


The focus on etextbooks continues as even the federal government makes major strides into taking the school textbook into the 21st century. Apple promised a “revolution” in its January press conference, and we seem to be in the middle of a revolution; however, Apple isn’t leading the charge this time.

The FCC and Department of Education Take the Lead

Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division notes that nearly $8 billion is spent each year on K-12 textbooks in the U.S. alone and that one major issue is the ability of schools to have the needed hardware and broadband capacity—in the home and school—to use these etexts effectively.

To kick off Digital Learning Day on Feb. 1, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Education jointly held a Town Hall in Washington, which issued an election year “challenge to states and companies to ensure every K-12 student has a digital textbook within five years.”

This ambitious plan “to help K-12 schools transition to digital textbooks” in the next 5 years is laid out in the Digital Textbook Collaborative. The plan builds on the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and the Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan and includes “membership” from a range of technology companies, publishers, schools and associations—from Apple to Verizon, Blackboard to McGraw Hill, San Diego Unified School District to Freed-Hardeman University.

The plan acknowledges the serious issues and uphill nature of this goal: “Challenges to digital textbook adoption include state textbook procurement rules, device and content interoperability, connectivity costs, and managing the transition.” This includes “too many students are using books that are 7-10 years old with outdated material,” and digital textbooks are used in scattered school districts across the U.S., but “adoption is not widespread.”

“The U.S. trails countries like South Korea in transitioning to digital textbooks” which has “announced that they will begin transitioning all students to digital textbooks starting in 2013.” Also, the report and the active involvement of the FCC addresses the fact that “about a third of Americans—100 million people—have not adopted broadband at home. Students need home broadband to access digital content and to complete Internet based homework.”

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski noted that “we will all win if the players in the digital learning ecosystem—including publishers, device manufacturers, platform providers, internet service providers, schools—work together to accelerate the adoption of digital textbooks. If they work together to address the obstacles of broadband deployment and adoption, content development, interoperability and device costs.” It is an ambitious plan, but it is seen as essential. “Digital learning,” he concludes, “is critical to the future of education in our country and to our global competitiveness.”

University Presses & Higher Ed Launch Programs

A recent survey by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) suggests that, eventually, textbooks (digital or physical) may be replaced by content connected to other course-related information and materials in integrated learning systems (ILS). Today, however, there is no clear road to how etextbooks will be integrated in higher education. “Today the textbook has undergone a huge metamorphosis in format and development, and the student population has increased 40-fold,” notes publishing consultant Eugene Schwartz. However, “the strategy of developing the market, designing the content architecture, and making the sale remains remarkably unchanged.” Today in academe, major efforts are being made to experiment with new models of publishing and information delivery.

University presses (through JSTOR, Project Muse, and other venues) work to move scholarly publishing to more open digital access. “For us at Penn State,” notes retired Penn State Press director Sandy Thatcher, “we couldn’t have made the transition from print to electronic without JSTOR and Project Muse because we didn’t have the ability on our own to be an ebook publisher. On our own we couldn’t afford the cost of setting up a system, this is well beyond the limited means of most university presses. It only took less than 5 years for our press to make the transition and for 2/3rds of our revenue from the Project MUSE revenue stream compared to print—and I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure wasn’t closer to 85% today from MUSE ebooks and 15% from print.”

In January, five major universities—Cornell, UC-Berkeley, Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin—jointly negotiated a “bulk-purchase” agreement for etextbooks based on students paying a course-materials fee that would be used to purchase the etextbooks at discounted prices. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young notes that this arrangement gives universities “a steadier and more predictable source of income than the current practice of letting students find textbooks any way they can—used, new, borrowed, or downloaded.” This project was led by Internet2 in an effort to combine the technology buying power of colleges, moving Internet2 “into unprecedented territory,” notes Young. “The nonprofit organization is known mainly for the nationwide high-speed computer network it built for its hundreds of member colleges. It has not previously worked with educational content.”

Internet2 officials explained that the five “participating universities in the pilot get McGraw-Hill eTexts, the Courseload reader and annotation platform integrated with their Learning Management System, and can be part of a joint research study of eText use and perceptions. Through the Courseload software, students can print, use social annotation with classmates and instructors, and access their eTexts on any HTML5-capable tablet, smartphone, or computer. Students will receive their eTexts at no cost as the institutions are subsidizing the study, and students who prefer a full hardcopy book may optionally order a print-on-demand version of the eText for a $28 fee. Faculty interest at the pilot institutions has been very strong.” This project builds off an eText Initiative begun in 2009 at Indiana University.

Each university is handling their implementation independently. “The university-owned bookstore has been a very progressive partner helping us in the recruitment of faculty and management of logistics with the publisher,” notes University of Minnesota administrator Billie Walstrom. “We have also benefited from a great implementation team which included representatives from Undergraduate Education, Student Affairs, IT, Faculty Senate, Office of the General Counsel, Faculty Affairs, Disability Services, and Libraries.” Karen Williams, associate university librarian for academic programs at Minnesota, sees this as an opportunity for libraries to “assess a new model for digital course materials that could potentially reduce the cost of textbooks for students and provide enhancements in support of learning.”

Independently, Rice University recently announced their own OpenStax College, offering “free online publisher-quality textbooks for five of the country’s most-attended college courses.” Slated to be published online this Fall, Rice’s Richard Baraniuk noted that “if we capture just 10 percent of the market with these first five textbooks, an estimated one million college students in the United States could save $90 million over the next five years.”

By remaining platform neutral and focused on learning/teaching, these projects allow faculty, staff, and libraries to work with etexts as an innovation and experiment, with fewer strings attached to specific platforms or publisher products.

Trends in Distance Elearning

Some suggest that online education is the perfect trial market for etextbooks. Speaking at a recent publishing seminar, Steve Paxhia, president of Beacon Hill Strategic Solutions suggested that “if you're looking for the sweet spot in digital users, look at distance learners.” New start-up online programs are popping up quickly: Academy Earth, “online courses from the world’s top scholars;” Coursera, a platform developed at Stanford with participation from faculty at Michigan and Berkeley; Udacity, a free educational platform developed by a Stanford professor; GoodSemester, a private company with a platform available to any developer; Topics in Digital Law Practice, a “free online course for law students and law faculty,” Udemy, another free online system with faculty from Duke, Dartmouth, and other institutions. Another interesting trend is the rise of online ‘transfer colleges:’ “Community colleges solely focused on moving students to four-year institutions.”

Online programs don’t necessarily provide any formal credit for the learning, but often represent interesting experimental efforts to harness the power of the internet for lifelong or continuing education. However, questions about the true educational value of many online programs continue to plague this industry.

Experimentation & Unanswered Questions

Many issues remain unsettled today, but the efforts to experiment and test ideas and technologies are a positive indicator of interest and innovation. Student acceptance of etextbooks is still a question, with some scattered surveys finding that students still prefer the current print-based systems.

Ebooks accounted for only 2.8% of the estimated $8 million textbook market in the U.S. in 2010, so the products are still at a very early stage of development. Although saving money is often cited as a major incentive for moving to ebooks, some studies have found that the savings to students may be as little as a dollar. Few good studies exist yet on the true effectiveness of etextbooks, iPads, and other innovations, and this type of validation is important in these hard economic times.

Standards is another key area. For a technology still evolving and developing, getting locked into proprietary systems, incompatible software systems, or inflexible designs will only continue to slow development of the entire market. Pricing, copyright schemes, and other issues also need better resolution. Perhaps the best perspective on etextbooks today is from Founders Fund’s Sean Parker, speaking at the 2011 Techonomy conference: “Literally anything you want to know from any perspective is available on the Internet, and I think the way to take advantage of that is to teach kids how to learn differently. Kids aren’t being taught how to learn in an environment where information is provided in a nonlinear fashion and it’s not condensed into a textbook.”

Technology is allowing us to open new doors, as long as the industry doesn’t allow the opportunities to constrain this much needed period of innovation and trial-and-error.

See also, “Etextbook Space Heats Up,” by Paula J. Hane, Information Today, NewsWatch column, November 2011. 


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
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