On May 12, 2011, McGraw-Hill Professional announced its new ebook platform, the McGraw-Hill eBook Library, described as “a state-of-the-art platform delivering unparalleled access to the publisher’s premium content for institutions around the world.” According to the website, the product was initially scheduled to launch in March 2011. Company officials plan appearances at library-related conferences throughout the coming year to demo the new ebook service, geared to the needs of professional and academic markets.
Sold as a service, this provides “flexible one-to-four-year subscription basis with free-of-charge monthly updates and unlimited concurrent usage.” At launch, the service offers more than 1,000 titles in five general subject areas initially: Student Study Aids and Test Prep; Business; Computing; Engineering and Medical and First Aid (http://www.mhebooklibrary.com/staticcms/aboutus). The subscription-based service allows for 1-4 year contracts with new titles added to each segment–at no added cost–during the year(s) of their contract.
Added user features include note taking and bookmarking. The press release stressed the system’s searchability as “simple to use with relevant, thorough results.” Users are able to print only one chapter of each work for their personal use. For libraries, the system comes with MARC records and provides libraries with usage data that allows librarians to “monitor usage with web analytics available through the eBook Library’s DRM interface.”
McGraw-Hill is a major player in the professional and educational markets with a global reach. In 2007, McGraw-Hill launched GradGuru.com, its first major foray into the direct online services market. With the by-line of “a knowledge sharing network where college students can share and find class-specific notes, build their academic reputations and earn rewards,” the award-winning GradGuru offers “a relevant and intuitive social learning environment for students from thousands of universities.” It has also provided McGraw-Hill a direct connection with their ultimate collegiate end-users.
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. CourseSmart sells digital replicas of etextbooks and now has a catalog of more than 15,000.
In March 2011, McGraw-Hill, along with Pearson, acquired a minority stake in Inkling, an etextbook software company, launched a year ago, that focuses on creating products that incorporate “interactivity, social collaboration and simple ease-of-use.” In the announcement, both companies committed to build interactive editions of their top titles for the Inkling platform. How much these collaborations and experiences have translated into McGraw-Hill’s new ebook platform is yet to be seen.
Textbooks Online—A Longstanding Application
Electronic textbooks have been available—often as PDFs through school systems that buy publishers’ texts—for many years. In March 2001, NetLibrary (while still an OCLC company) purchased MetaText, a company that created web-based digital textbooks. McGraw-Hill, along with Thomson Learning, Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin, W.W. Norton, and Jones and Bartlett sold titles through the NetLibrary eBookstore. This was one of the few ‘successful’ efforts of this early era of etextbooks. However, they weren’t alone.
Rovia, an “MIT-bred startup,” was another pioneer in this area, using proprietary web-based software to allow students to access texts from various publishers, using a login system and linkages from course packs, classroom management systems, or direct login access. In the same era, and focusing on WebCT and Blackboard course management systems, WizeUp.com was a company that had agreements with McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Harcourt College, Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin, W.W. Norton, and John Wiley & Sons.
Another start-up, DigitalOwl, lasted a mere 3 years, burning through an estimated $11 million in venture capital and never formally entering the marketplace. These efforts may not have blossomed, but show that there has been, at least, toe-in-the-water interest in etextbooks for many years now. With the clear market acceptance of elearning and ebooks, publishers are wisely testing the publisher-based model of ebook distribution.
The Professor Made Me Do It?
A recent study from Student Monitor, reported in Inside Higher Ed notes that “printed textbooks are still alive and well thanks to a boom in rentals”—not to the availability of ebooks. In fact, the survey found that only 2% of the respondents reported buying etexts—and their rationale? “My professor required me to.” Maybe the future of textbooks is still too embryonic and the market too nuanced to speculate much about the ongoing transformation of textbooks in the 21st century learning environment.
There are still many key issues for etextbooks in higher education. Cost is a major issue, with many faculty seeking to use portions of texts rather than having students overburdened with needing many, expensive titles of which only a small portion may be critical to the course. Another issue revolves around the concept of ownership. Owning a title means you can freely take notes or share with a friend. You may choose to keep some key work for future use beyond the term of that class. You might decide to resell the book to recoup some of the expenses incurred for your education. These factors deserve equal attention to copyright, which still represents a major stumbling block to publishers.
Deconstructing & Reconstructing the Textbook
A 2010 Outsell study of the textbook marketplace estimated the 2008 value of digital textbooks at $1.5 billion, growing to $4.1 billion by 2013, a 200% growth rate—yet still far behind the $12.5 billion market for print texts. Textbook publishers are still in the early phases of electronic adoption, focusing on the direct transfer of printed works into ebook products. One hopes that upcoming products will focus more on using the best of electronic tools and tricks to create compelling works that will provide heightened learning and more engaging content. That, however, is not in the foreseeable future as textbook publishers work to test the markets, the needs and preferences of their users—as well as their own assumptions as they move into the electronic era.
“We see our role as publishers changing significantly as we move toward a more information-based business model,” notes Tom Stanton, communications director for McGraw-Hill Education. “McGraw-Hill is focused on identifying and driving new ways to distribute and use digital content and tools. This is about deconstructing the textbook, and creating content and tools that promote learner engagement and academic success. We see the expansion of teaching and learning platforms like McGraw-Hill Connect, which offers students personalized learning, self-assessment, lecture capture, online tutoring, online collaboration capabilities and much more.”
In a 2006 3-day workshop sponsored by NSF, STEM researchers concluded that:
The textbook of the future will be more than a static printed volume, according to the meeting participants. It will function as a guide, interweaving and coordinating a variety of different learning resources including animations, simulations, and interactive exercises. Such a package of resources would be easily searchable, and thus would be learner accessible with a flexible electronic interface. The textbook, whether printed or electronic, will be the organizing hub of an integrated learning environment where the student experience is key. The goal here is to retain the core stability and authority that make the textbook so valuable while at the same time to provide the flexibility, timeliness, and inquiry-focused approach that the Web and other electronic resources offer.
Whether or not this McGraw-Hill endeavor achieves this definition or not, the company joins a growing circle of big-time publishers—Wiley, Springer, and Elsevier—already operating ebook platforms and working to build a structure that incorporates elements of this vision in their design.