Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Thinking outside the books:

Tom Davy of Thomson Learning EMEA proposed to examine how the textbook has evolved to its present form, and to ask whether, given techological advancements, it's still relevant to today's students. He gave an initial definition of a text book, and noted that whilst they were initially very dry ("Learning wasn't meant to be fun; it was the price you paid for the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that went with student life in the 70s"), they have been "sexed up" over the years with brighter designs and pedagogical features such as learning objectives and case studies. By the late 80s, everyday students (not just geeks) had come to use computers in their work so textbooks began to be supplemented with software - from floppy disks through CD-ROMs to websites.

While teachers and students have different philosophies and expectations about the teaching process, publishers' objectives are primarily about winning market share, through creating superior text books and persuading educators to adopt them. "It has become a bit of an arms race", with the UK market suffering from defensive publishing to combat second-hand sales, and growth coming from price increases rather than volume sales. Some campus bookstores are returning up to half of the textbooks they order, as smart students shop around online for the best deal - which may require purchasing an overseas edition (Asian editions may be half the price of UK editions which in turn may be half the price of the US edition).

Other factors include decreasing face time with tutors (students are spending less on text books as no-one is driving them to purchase) and students' increasing habit of seeking "free" answers, for example via Google. Davy showed some compelling video clips which, whilst amusing, demonstrated students' reliance on Google - even when they are aware of the higher value of authoritative resources ("I might look for some scholarly papers in JSTOR ... teachers love that").

As such, the diminishing returns in educational publishing, and the lack of return on investment, is causing several major publishers (e.g. Wolters Kluwer) to leave the sector. Could its future be digital, and if so, in what format?

Davy proceed to evaluate paper vs digital formats for educational publishing. Textbooks, he noted, are portable, tactile, independent of other equipment or power, and easier to read - but they are linear and can support only a single learning style. Meanwhile digital textbooks and the media supporting them can also be portable and tactile; the equipment is ubiquitous anyway (iPods, mobile phones) and the format supports interactivity, multiple media and individual learning styles.

Moving from a book-centric model to a learning-objective-centric model transcends the problem of content silos and incorporates other web-based media e.g. You Tube, Flickr, whilst supporting instant access to authoritative content whenever it is needed. Why isn't there more demand for this kind of next-generation learning resource? and why do providers give away the arguably more useful non-print materials?

Davy suggested that the term "e-book" is a distraction, since it implies a simple digitisation of textbooks for delivery as PDFs. This is inadequate; we need to break the content down further for delivery at much more granular levels - chapters, tables etc. Innovations in web platforms and search technologies make it easier to achieve this; customised learning objectives can be created for individual students, and linked to appropriate resources. Social websites can teach us a great deal about user behaviour in the core market of 16-25 year olds.

Davy closed by presenting three key opportunities for progress:
  • university managers need to compete for students' attention as well as their fee income
  • librarians need to improve marketing services and move into the campus bookshop space to increase the library's status within the institution
  • publishers need to recognise that whilst the textbook won't become extinct, they need to think "outside the book" and begin creating digital learning objects.
During questions David Thomas (ScholarOne) suggested that, whilst we've heard a lot about e-textbooks over the last 5 years, sales show that they haven't really achieved traction. How will this be achieved? Davy responded that this will depend on faculty embracing e-resources as part of the core material that they instructing users to use. He added that the business model (requiring the student to purchase from a bookstore) is a block; we need to be able to licence the package to the university, and have the costs rolled into the course fee. (I would reference here the UK HE service Heron, which provides digitisation and copyright clearance services to higher education services in the UK; Heron's Packtracker service digitises the materials required for a given course, clears the necessary copyright permissions, and makes the pack available for students to access online).



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately in the world of RAE teaching isn't top of mind for academics - thus in the near future it's doubtful if they or their managers will really engage with the potential issue of the textbook in its current form going away.

The premise that the cost of e-books can be rolled into course fees or that libraries can be encouraged to find new money for e-books looks unrealistic.

5:24 pm  

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