TOC Preview: The Future of Digital Textbooks

Technology is driving change in the way people teach, learn, and create. The impact of technology on teaching and learning in K-12, higher education, and professional learning has been profound, and, while no one can predict the future, it’s safe to say this transformation has only just begun.

At next week’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference, a session titled “The Future of Digital Textbooks” and an open roundtable on publishing, emerging technologies, and education, will discuss the devices, business models, and technologies impacting education and textbook publishers.

As a prelude to TOC, panel moderator John W. Warren, Marketing Director, Publications, at the RAND Corporation, posed questions about digital textbooks and their impact on students and teachers to panelists Neeru Khosla, Co-Founder and Executive Director of CK-12 Foundation; Frank Lyman, Executive Vice President of CourseSmart LLC; Nicholas Smith, Chief Operating Officer, Agile Mind; and Eric Frank, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer, Flat World Knowledge.

John Warren: What are the prospects for ebook devices, such as the Kindle, compared to tablet devices such as the iPad, or accessing digital textbooks on computers, whether desktop computers or laptops?

Neeru Khosla: Ebook devices in their present format (i.e. Kindle, iPad) have limited functionality. They also cost too much for education. When a panel of high school students was asked what device they couldn’t live without, 75 percent responded that they couldn’t live without their computers. That’s a complete device — providing their music, communication (Skype, AIM), reading, you name it. 

For an ebook reader to be successful it will need to be a multifunction device. For now, there are simply too many limiting factors — affordability, battery life, portability, and readability. I believe that most of these limitations will be overcome with time; however, the mindset of readability in print format versus online is a huge one and needs to be addressed.

Frank Lyman: Millions of college students are now using computers to access various kinds of digital course materials. This activity has reached almost complete market saturation, with 88 percent of students owning laptops, 9 out of 10 using course management systems and accessing online course materials within the CMS.

Because nearly every student can already access digital textbooks on a computer, the initiatives that are successful at scale in the near term will likely be those focused on the computer as the main access point. Scale is more important in the academic market than in most consumer markets because the institution is interested in providing an equal experience across student groups. This is one of the main reasons why digital learning moved slowly during the past decade, as the “digital divide” narrowed for both computer ownership and broadband access.

That said, I believe there are strong prospects for both ebook and tablet devices in education. The Kindle DX may not have been successful in its initial pilots, but that may reflect the reality that it’s better suited for specific educational uses as opposed to being an across-the-board textbook device. For example, at the Darden School at the University of Virginia, the Kindle replaced printed loose-leaf business cases, and there it has been received more positively than in some of the other pilots.

In my opinion, tablets have greater potential as a game-changing device across the educational market. Browser-based interfaces will run some of the best existing interactive learning products for computers, and the new form and functions are likely to drive a new generation of innovative teaching and learning products. That said, in the near term, scale will continue to be an issue for these devices. Until an institution can feel comfortable that students have equal access to this type of experience (as they do with a textbook) they will be reluctant to support large-scale initiatives. So the tablet market will probably grow as the laptop market did — student by student at first, then adopted institution-wide by some forward-thinking schools, finally reaching the kind of scale that we now see with laptops. Content strategies that support the tablet market will grow more robust through that lifecycle.

Eric Frank: In general, I think we will see continued fragmentation in how people read textbooks. Device manufacturers, be they dedicated devices like the Kindle, broader utility devices like the iPad, or fully featured computers, will continue to compete to gain textbook market share by consistently adding functionality and decreasing price.

All of that competition will lead to device convergence — dedicated devices will continue to look more like computers, computers will continue to get smaller, and reading functionality will be enhanced. In the end, it will be a lot like the PC market — lots of consumer choice, huge fragmentation, and constant downward pressure on prices for device manufacturers.

For content companies, this fragmentation presents a continuing challenge. The fixed editorial and development cost to publish a single copy of a textbook requires investment. Now, however, publishers need to spend more money converting files to each of the formats required by devices people are using. And publishers will be paying a “toll” to the device manufacturer that now has pricing power, like Amazon or Apple. All of this while the pressure on prices the market will sustain for digital books will continue to press inexorably toward zero.

Nicholas Smith: I’m going to pose an alternative question here. What problem is the ebook trying to solve? From an educational perspective at least, I feel a little bit like we are trying to put wheels on a horse. This question, and the general discussion, seems to come from the viewpoint of publishers trying to fit traditional content into a new format. What problems are we trying to solve for students and teachers? Is it simply the dissemination of two-dimensional print content in a highly consumable, electronic format? We have an opportunity and a responsibility to design products that fully leverage the power of technology.

Stealing from Henry Ford, let’s not design a faster horse; let’s design an automobile. Learning involves reading, but it involves so much more that we can offer through technology. Imagine that I no longer read a page of text and look up, realizing that my mind has been wandering for half of the page. Maybe I start the “page” by watching a video that engages me in a topic and poses some provocative questions, I then read a paragraph or two, and finally I’m presented with a couple of questions. By answering these questions, I confirm my understanding of what I just read and can continue reading, or drill down into this topic further through some links if I am curious. If I answer the questions wrong, I am immediately pointed to where I need to go to get steered back on course. And then, when I get to class, my teacher already knows what I and others have been having trouble with, since the results to the questions I’ve answered — and failed to answer — are sent to her, thus she can teach to what I, and other students, don’t know instead of what we already know.

That’s an automobile, not a horse with wheels.

Warren: Can ebook devices work with kids? Can they pass the milk test (ability of the device to have milk spilt on it and survive)?

Khosla: Ebook devices have a higher probability of passing the milk test among high school students who have already developed more of a “device mentality” compared to elementary school students. For example, I worry about younger kids stepping on the Kindle; the ability to protect the screen for younger kids is most important. OLPC came out with XO, which not only passed the milk test, but also took care of the safety of other elements. The next iteration of this was Yves Bihar’s e-reader-like design, which has a dual screen that can be closed like a book, making it safe from “milk.” This is a good e-reader for younger children.

Lyman: I don’t work in K-12 education on a day-to-day basis, so it’s difficult for me to have an informed opinion on this. I will say that, as a parent, I expect the primary educational device for the educational career of my seven-year-old to be a computer. I expect the primary device for the educational career of my six-month-old to be some type of tablet device. For the period in between, I suspect the engineers will find a way to solve the milk test.

Warren: Much has been written about the crisis of high textbook costs — one reason why digital textbooks provide so much promise and excitement. Students, teachers, and schools hope that digital textbooks prove to be less expensive than traditional textbooks. Yet these stakeholders also desire a variety of features for digital textbooks, such as multimedia, self-assessment and self-tutoring, personalization and customization, and gaming or simulation. Are both of these goals achievable?

Frank: I think the tendency to create ed-tech because “we can” is a strong one. Hundreds of millions of investment dollars have been burnt up on educational technology that sounds good in theory, but either (a) does not actually improve teaching or learning or (b) does improve teaching and learning but is not actually implementable because it requires far too much change on the part of the end user (teacher, student, or school system).

The marketing concept that “people hire products to do a job for them more efficiently and less expensively” is powerful and real. The corollary is that people are generally not looking for new jobs to do, but too often, it seems that ed-tech when introduced just adds a new job to people’s lives. In the medium term, I think that the powerful wave that will carry digital textbooks forward is (1) cost (2) cost (3) cost (4) efficiency and (5) customization. Over time, selectively, we’ll see the implementation of effective assessment, data collection, multimedia, and more — but not before a lot of money is spent, and after many ideas fail.

Smith: Publishers already have many digital assets that they package with a traditional textbook, including animations, quizzing, simulations, premium websites, etc. The print book model isn’t great for including these, but publishers know that they need to offer them, so they glue them into the current model — they bundle up these parts and pieces, and send them off to students. Not efficient. The digital model is the natural one for bringing all of these parts and pieces elegantly together. Wouldn’t you rather read a paragraph about supply and demand, watch a video of supply and demand in action, answer a couple of questions that allowed you to check whether or not you understood what you just read/watched, and finally receive immediate feedback so you could either re-read or move on? It’s a lot easier to do this on one digital page (I hesitate to use the term digital text because I think that is only a small part of the solution) than with a book in one hand, a pencil in the other, a CD in the computer in front of you, and … well, you get the idea.

In addition, there are economic inefficiencies with the current hardcopy textbook model. As you know, textbook publishers service entire classrooms of higher-ed students, but receive revenue from only, say, 30 percent of those students on average. Other students purchase used textbooks, borrow from friends, or manage to go without. Students who purchase new books pay exorbitant prices, bearing the cost for students who purchase used books, where the dollars do not flow back to the publisher.

The digital textbook business model holds real promise. Publishers can move to an “Every Student Pays” (the publisher) model that will allow them to charge far less money per student but garner the same amount of total revenue. The direct link between those using the content paying those who are creating and distributing the content is much more economically efficient, to say nothing of the reduced paper, printing and binding costs incurred by publishers and the reduced “pain and suffering” of students carrying around backpacks approaching their own body weight …

One caveat, however, the digital book model will decrease costs in the short term because publishers can efficiently monetize each instance of that content. But longer term, publishers will want to charge what the market will bear and competition will be the only influencer of how high these prices will rise.

Lyman: Absolutely. Much that is written about this issue totally misses the point as to where cost savings come from. Publishers, as often observed, will save millions of dollars in printing and shipping costs as the business migrates from print to digital. But as the question suggests, they are investing similar sums in building out the interactive learning functionality that drives improved teaching and learning. In the simplest terms, this is probably a wash and would not, on its own, be an indicator of lower prices.

But the ability of publishers, new and old, traditional and nontraditional, to deliver a next generation interactive learning product at a lower cost has more to do with the change in the business model than the print-to-digital form factor. There are billions of dollars trapped in the inefficiencies of the current business model. A major portion of this cost is in the operating costs (shipping and handling) and profit margins associated with used books. As the TOC audience knows, none of the dollars students spend on used books goes to the content creators (authors or publishers).

Digital course materials will allow publishers to lower prices for every student. You can see this already in the price for an average CourseSmart eTextbook, at 50 percent of a print textbook. Although for some lucky students who get 50 percent back at the end of the semester on a print book this is a break-even proposition, for most students (and for the market as a whole) this represents a wholesale reduction in cost as a reward for moving to a digital product model. Other models, like Flat World Knowledge’s “freemium” model, operate on the same principle, where content providers can continue to invest in new and innovative products with lower prices when they are participating in a transaction with nearly every student.

Khosla: Right now, no. Providing functionality like multimedia makes these devices expensive at this time. So most providers are having a harder time providing these, whereas the larger companies like Apple and Microsoft can provide multimedia since they have the ability and the funds.

Other things like self-assessment self-tutoring are more complex. Right now the only assessment that we can all agree on is whether a student got the answer right or not. Until we all come up with assessment that is more meaningful, it will be an uphill battle, at least for the K-12 category.

Gaming or simulation is also harder to implement at this point because no one really knows what works in gaming in education. How do you place all these functionalities on this kind of limited platform? There are free gaming companies emerging that are not planning on raising any commerce from their product at this point. I am waiting to see how this plays out.

Warren: Should we expect to see a new digital divide? How can schools reconcile issues of access among different socioeconomic groups for digital textbooks, ebook devices, and computers?

Khosla: I do worry about this. I believe that there will be a new digital divide regarding access. Until the time comes when we are able to distribute computers as we now distribute and afford books, we’ll have to deal with this digital divide. Access is not a big issue in higher education, because we believe that digital access is fundamental to learning in this level. We ensure that all higher ed students have access to computers, but for elementary education it is a different issue. 

Consider East Palo Alto, in California: these students have access to computers for a couple of hours a day, and then the computers are locked up in computer carts. While in Palo Alto, we see students end the day going to sleep working on their computers.
These issues are very complex and are more than just a simple yes or no answer; support, online access, etc., become rate-limiting factors. We will have to move into providing a computer program for all elementary school students just like the higher education programs.

Smith: In higher ed, I suspect that, even if every student does not have her own laptop, relatively painless access to a computer and the Internet is ubiquitous. When I was at Aplia, we required that students complete our online homework as part of their grade. From 2003 until the present, we never came across a situation in which students could not reasonably do this.

The K-12 landscape is far different, especially for school districts in underserved communities. In theory, most students have some access to computers and the Internet. In practice, many schools may have computers, but bandwidth is shared among a very large population, making it painful to do even the most basic Internet-based activities, let alone access video or audio. Computer labs might be open only for limited times, and there is a surplus of students who want to use these resources.

Over the long term, ubiquity of these services will become a reality for all K-12 schools in this country, but we’re not there yet. Would that we could successfully and quickly implement a One Laptop Per Child policy in here in the United States.

The lesson here is, let’s not try to build a smart car for K-12 while ignoring the fact that there are few roads to drive it on. Let’s ensure that we are doing both.

Lyman: Although I’m sure there is still some debate, there’s no doubt that the digital divide for computer ownership (or regular access) and broadband connectivity has been dramatically improved over the last decade in higher education. My guess is that it is mostly a non-issue for most post-secondary education institutions as long as they are pursuing digital course material solutions that can be accessed on basic computers.

The new digital divide will be for smart phones, ebook devices, and tablets. Until these devices reach the same kind of 90+ percent penetration amongst college students that laptops currently have, it will be difficult for schools to take a leadership role in content initiatives that require these devices without tripping up against their mission to provide an equal education experience to all.

But like laptops, if these devices serve a valuable educational purpose, their numbers will grow quickly amongst students, their prices will subsequently fall, and at some point institutions will step in and begin to require/guarantee access for all students in a community. During that process publishers will be wise to focus on providing content for these devices that can be used as an individual student choice.

Another point that sometimes gets lost in this debate: At CourseSmart we often hear from students who say that having a lower-cost eTextbook option available to them offered them the ability to buy all four of their books, versus having to choose two and go without the other two. This is indicative of what you might call a growing “textbook divide” which sees some student groups more capable of purchasing their textbooks than others. Solving this problem with lower cost eTextbooks may well be a bigger issue for institutions that what is left of the digital divide for basic computers and broadband.

Warren: Are Open Access models sustainable over the long term?

Lyman: It depends on the definition of “open access.” For example, I am a firm believer in the traditional authoring model for core college textbooks, i.e., an author or authors whose clear vision for teaching a course is refined through peer review into an approach that is adopted by a significant portion of the community. In many disciplines, this process also involves skilled contributors in art, design, illustration, and multimedia. In my opinion, producing these products at a level of quality that is necessary for a world-class educational institution requires investment.

In other words, I’m skeptical that Campbell’s Biology or Mankiw’s Economics could be “crowdsourced” or replaced by wiki-books. I’m equally skeptical that taxpayer-funded “free” textbook development by university employees (faculty) will ever produce the quality of course materials the commercial authoring model does.

But certain “open access” models maintain this basic authoring and product development model, but test different business models for paying back the investment. For example, if you consider Flat World’s approach to not protecting their intellectual property once it is developed as “open access,” then to me it is an example of an open access model that may be sustainable. I see this approach as part of a broader market movement to test new business models like textbook rental, eTextbook subscription, “freemium” approaches, and others. 

Khosla: Open educational resources/textbooks are a new concept and there will be improvement in these products. These models can be sustainable, I believe, as long as there is a strong value proposition that people recognize and have a need. 
Here are some of my reasons:

  • The publishing industry has been subsidized by federal funding. That’s because much of the research used as the basis of the content has been funded by the Federal organizations such as NSF, NIH, etc. I don’t see why some of that funding cannot be diverted into open access models.
  • As long as there are some people who want to create content and make it available for all, there will be sustainability. Non-profit organizations have survived over time from the generosity of others, so why not open educational resources (OER)? This may be a simplistic view, but a viable one to be considered.
  • As with everything else, there must be an upfront investment to support this movement, which means that once we provide the capabilities than it will be easier to maintain this trend, such as tools for print, tools for authoring, web-presence. These organizations are not top-heavy, and can survive at a much lower operating cost than companies with a greater organizational structure.
  • There is no indication, from projects like CK-12, that quality control is not compatible with open access. Some OER that have been produced did not have a quality assurance component, but now we have shown that these projects can have the requisite quality. The argument that these types of projects cannot produce the level of quality that publishers traditionally produce is no longer true. It’s all a mindset.

Frank: I believe they absolutely are. Flat World Knowledge is beginning to demonstrate that in a meaningful way. The reality is that Kevin Kelly was right (in my opinion) when he called the Internet “a giant copy machine.” When things can be copied, he said, they become abundant and therefore have lesser value. So, you need to sell things around content that cannot be copied, like services, customizability, authenticity, patronage of authors, and so on. The open access models that survive and thrive will generate a lot of revenue from sources around content, instead of from the content itself.

Warren: Some digital textbook initiatives have failed because students and teachers want choice, such as the ability to print chapters or buy a printed version. What is the role of paper with digital textbooks?

Lyman: At CourseSmart, our experience is that printing is a valuable part of the service we provide. The most common feedback we get from students is that they value the ability or option to “print just what they need.” To a lot of students, this feels much more efficient and environmentally sensitive than buying the complete book in print.

I am also a firm believer in choice. CourseSmart’s overall customer satisfaction statistics over the past six semesters have shown that between 75 percent and 80 percent of our customers are satisfied with the eTextbook experience. When we drill down and seek out dissatisfied customers, one of the most common elements is that they were someone forced or required to use an eTextbook. We recognize that eTextbooks aren’t for everyone, so we position CourseSmart as a retail choice for students and one that they can make without the involvement or knowledge of the instructor.

I think the most successful models for eTextbooks will be paired with a print choice for the foreseeable future. 

Khosla: I believe that paper will be with us for a long time. To be successful, we must differentiate between the promises of the future versus reality of today. Paper is important until we have device that can be similar to the versatility of paper — cost, flexibility, ease of readability, and battery life. Lets face it, the human body has capabilities and functionalities that devices have not caught up with yet, and we are far from that day. 

Warren: How soon will the future of digital textbooks really arrive? Will they replace printed texts any time soon?

Khosla: Digital textbooks are already here. CK-12 has provided them, as have other organizations such as Flat World Knowledge. We are now in the phase of refining and adding more functionality. But I don’t believe they will replace printed texts soon. They will be an addition to printed texts until we have the ability to provide more functionality, such as ability to really give the user the same experience that they get from a printed book — sharing, highlighting, note taking, multimedia — and until we make them into “living books.”

Lyman: I like to point out to people that college textbooks are really the last print-dominated media business. Most people follow with some form of the question “why aren’t textbooks digital?” And of course the answer is complicated. Nothing moves as quickly in academia as it does in general consumer markets due to the many non-market factors that are in play (academic freedom, tenure, ADA requirements, commitment to equality across student groups, etc.). One only has to look at the University of Phoenix, which delivers most of its course materials digitally, to see the potential for digital textbooks in a truly market-oriented institution.

But we’ve seen significant changes in educational technology and course delivery during the last fifteen years. The ECAR study from 2005 showed that 56 percent of students owned a laptop. That number is now 88 percent, less than 20 years after the first laptops showed up on campus. Similarly, the use of course management systems has reached more than 90 percent of students in less than fifteen years.

While I don’t think that digital course materials will completely replace printed texts in a similar timeline, I think it’s reasonable to assume they will be widely adopted, and perhaps the dominant user experience by 2020. Given that the first eTextbooks and interactive learning products were first introduced broadly around the year 2000, this puts broad acceptance of eTextbooks in academia on a similar timeline to laptops and course management systems. And given that laptops, broadband access, and course management systems are all enabling technologies for eTextbooks, things could move even faster. But of course, it’s anybody’s guess!

Smith: I’m writing this on my iPhone, so … Seriously, this is not a binary thing it’s a continuum. We’re in the seminal stages of something that will eventually become ubiquitous. Our challenge, and our real opportunity, is to re-imagine what a digital textbook means and to think outside the box about the opportunities that this medium affords us to more effectively engage, educate, and inspire.

For more discussion on this subject, please attend these sessions at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference:

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