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The backlash against print AND digital textbooks

“Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” declared U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan in 2012. While states have been moving slowly to begin the transformation, it is good old fashioned capitalism that is forcing publishers’ hands to move quickly to a more immersive experience than merely taking a printed textbook into a PDF or ePUB format that students can access on a tablet or eReader device -- in speaking with many educators in recent years, they define “digital textbooks” as merely textbooks in a new electronic format.


The most startling revelation is the dramatic increase to the cost of purchasing textbooks1.jpgtextbooks, whether as a public school system or the individual higher education student at the campus bookstore. Just take a look at the following statistics:


  • One article reports Consumer Price Index for recreational books has risen a mere 1.6% from 1998-2013
  • The average unit price for PCs continues to drop dramatically since 2006 according to an article in The Guardian
  • The same CPI report shows that college textbooks have risen is cost 142.5% since 1998
  • Going even further back, a Huffington Post article cites an example showing that college textbooks have increased 812% in cost since 1978, more than 3 times the rate of the overall consumer price index, more than twice the price of new homes nationwide, and over 200% points higher than the increase in medical costs since 1978.

With the typical college student spending more than $1,200 annually for textbooks, and K-12 school systems investing billions annually for instructional materials, budgets to reduce class sizes or improve the physical facilities for school buildings remains sparse. Earlier reports show that K-12 instructional materials spending increased from $3.4B to $4.2B between 1995 and 2007, but Simba Information now confirms that the PreK-12 market currently spends $8B in a 2014 report. So while growth was a modest 25% over a 12-year span, the most recent 7-year span witnessed a nearly 90% increase.


Threats to business model


To the traditional publisher, the challenges are coming from all directions. Some may be attributed to altruistic efforts and passionate educators…others come from desperate students trying to pay their bills. While used textbooks and textbook rental companies were initial concerns, the problems run much deeper. Whatever the rationale or factor, the end result is a deteriorating reliance on the traditional model of creating and distributing content.


  • Open Source Publishing – Initially discounted by traditional outlets, organizations committed to providing high quality access to instructional resources is starting to grow roots in K-12 and higher education. Organizations such as CK12, OpenStax, Flat World Knowledge and Curriki have offering academic resources and content, peer-reviewed in many instances and aligned to meet specific learning requirements. As states begin to lax their rigid textbook/curriculum approval processes to quality for state aid, more districts may find select open source texts a viable alternate.
  • Free Learning Resources – While sometimes educators don’t appreciate the value of “free,” several sites have become important facets to online learning for being budget-friendly. Khan Academy and SAS Curriculum Pathways extend free learning resources and activities to K-12 students – sometimes in competition with closed LMS offerings from publishers.
  • Teacher-Created Content – Classroom teachers have often created their own manipulatives and classroom activities. Sites such as teacherspayteachers.com allow the dissemination of such materials between faculty members. Today more than 1 million resources are offered for free and for sale on that site alone. Many new open learning management systems, such as Fishtree, allow for teachers to create their own activities, as well as embed open source content.
  • Re-invented Learning – Rather than view digital learning as an ePUB file of a textbook, some schools are leveraging simulation/game-based learning activities. Rather than read about concepts – a way Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience” suggests is one of the worst methods of learning – learning by doing in the form of games and simulations yields far greater results. New content providers are moving quickly to adopt this approach, possibly faster than traditional publishers.
  • The “Black Market” of Textbooks – These are the URLs college students speak about, but never put in print. The sites that lawyers are constantly trying to track down, but as soon as one is shut down, two more are launched. And for a student looking to save $1,200+ a year – either because they simply don’t have the money or plan to spend their parent’s textbook money for something else – the growing list of “napster-like” web sites is growing. Students are sharing HTML, PDF and ePUB files of popular textbooks for free. One such site functioning today is Text Book Nova, with thousands of titles available for free download. One traffic site reports that Text Book Nova generated 96,000 visitors in the past 30 days. If each downloaded only 1 textbook, and the average college textbook is $150, that represents a $14m + loss in one month from a single web site.

It’s a turning point for the publishing industry. They represent an important and widely appreciated need for education at every level. But just as the PC industry has been forced to re-invent itself to remain successful, publishing companies must rethink their business models and determine the best ways to remain effective and relevant in today’s education world.


Some companies may grow and flourish in this new age. Some will unfortunately disappear or be acquired. It happened in the technology industry – Hayes, Sperry, Tandem, Gateway, Zenith, Bell&Howell, Packard Bell, RCA…even Compaq – all once major players in the PC computing space that have been acquired, closed or discontinued.


Change is never easy, and change will upset those in support of the status quo. But when a select few organizations embrace that change as part of their culture, the next generation of instructional content and assessment will be extraordinary.


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About the Author
  • Jim Vanides is responsible for the vision, strategy, design, and implementation of education technology innovation initiatives. His focus is the effective use of technology to create powerful learning experiences that help students around the world succeed. He has been instrumental in launching over 1200 primary, secondary, and higher education projects in 41 countries, including the HP Catalyst Initiative - a 15-country network of 60+ education organizations exploring innovations in STEM(+) learning and teaching. In addition to his work at HP, Jim teaches an online course for Montana State University on the Science of Sound, a masters-level, conceptual physics course for teachers in grades 5 through 8. Jim’s past work at HP has included engineering design, engineering management, and program management in R&D, Manufacturing, and Business Development. He holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University.
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