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Textbooks: A Value Proposition

Editor’s note: Where do you stand on the digital textbook debate? E-mail us at; select responses will be published in our March 2008 issue.

Consider the following two bullets: The first presents the issue of textbook price increases as often framed by three important audiences—faculty, financial aid counselors, and students. The second describes the typical response of state legislators. The remainder of this article proposes ways to increase the value of learning materials that surprisingly, and perhaps more convincingly, address the concerns of all parties. Whether we acknowledge it now or not, the yellow brick road leads to a digital future.
  • Jim Sayer, Wright State University’s (OH) faculty senate president, is a master rhetorician and teacher of that fine art, too. Leading a discussion among the faculty senators on the relentless rise in the cost of text books, compounding at more than 6 percent per annum for the last two decades (per the US Government Accountability Office), he set the stage: “I’ve taught Aristotle for 38 years. Every three years I do so from a different textbook, and it always is more expensive for my students,” and then posed this set of questions: “Why? What’s going on here? Do we have a strategy for getting these costs under control?”
  • Although textbook costs are just one contributor to the escalating costs of higher education, “making textbooks affordable” has become a rallying cry for concerned faculty, financial aid officers, and student organizations around the country.

Sayer’s rhetorical questions, the financial aid counselor’s spreadsheets, and the students’ ire are echoed in more formal language in a preliminary bill focused on textbook pricing about to emerge from the Ohio Senate. Modeled on similar legislation drafted in Minnesota, the proposed bill focuses on three broad deliverables: easily navigated textbook websites with clearly priced and unbundled learning assets available for individual purchase; early forewarning of forthcoming new textbook editions that would depress or eliminate the used book market for current versions of texts; and exploration of alternatives to traditional publishing and distribution methods (textbook rental programs, custom publishing, and eTextbooks are offered as three examples). The Minnesota and Ohio explorations follow initiatives in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, and Washington, and at last count 25 other states with variants on these three themes or other proposed remedies (see link).

Has the market failed, and are there no alternatives to legislation to control the costs of texts? Maybe, and maybe not. The answers depend on whether faculty, publishers, bookstores, and others involved in the textbook delivery chain can establish new models of information distribution—with faculty changing instructional practices to take advantage of customizable, focused content and digital delivery of that content. Students too must change, opting in to scenarios that have them paying for use of (“renting”), rather than ownership of, instructional course content. Sound radical? Let’s add one additional constraint: new models of providing instructional materials should improve student learning outcomes, even as they reduce costs. Margaret Spellings and her Higher Education Action Agenda would have it no other way.

This focus on learning outcomes is the lever that can move the behaviors of all involved in the “content delivery chain” and, perhaps far more effectively than legislation, nurture a high value to price ratio for learning materials, the ultimate goal of publishers, bookstore operators, faculty, and students.

Textbooks: A Look at the Issues

Let’s put some propositions on the table and support and attack them:

The high cost of textbooks is the sole responsibility of the publishers. Probably not: The bookstores, those faculty indifferent to costs (23 percent in Zogby International’s 2006 study, commissioned by the Association of American Publishers), and students who game the system all share responsibility, and together could forge attractive alternatives to the present model of textbook delivery and use. More accurately, it isn’t the agency of any of these players; it is the structure of the textbook industry. The root source of high textbook costs is the “annuity problem,” the fact that first offerings purchased by the first group of students must sustain ever-weakening revenue streams until the book’s “end of life.” Every quarter or semester after the initial release of a new edition, used text offerings cannibalize the publisher’s new book sales. Typically 70 percent of total publisher revenue is tied to the initial offering, and purchases by the first wave of students must cover the lion’s share of royalties, production costs, and profits for the creators of the content.

Used books are the ticket to textbook savings. Studies done by the Wisconsin State System, the Virginia Commonwealth, and others suggest that well-stocked and available used book selections offer the best relief against high textbook prices. Perhaps this is a useful remedy in the short term, and when thinking only within the realm of print textbooks, but a robust used book market actually exacerbates the annuity problem. Since the publisher’s revenue from new book sales must subsidize an even greater number of used book sales, a more efficient used book market will drive the cost of new texts higher. And as new book prices escalate, the price of used books will follow the same upward spiral.

Textbooks should be comprehensive. The monolithic textbook and the rationale underlying its production may be anachronisms. The 22-chapter textbook I co-authored in 1989 was developed from an editorial/production model that first assumed weekly readings for a 17-week semester. Next, we convened faculty focus groups, and we wrote five additional chapters to cover interests we had left out but that were valued by some significant share of the market. Book sales were driven by a variation on the 80/20 rule, all adopters will use most of the book but each individual adopter wants some degrees of freedom to craft the emphases in their course. The sunk cost of creating this universal resource is a guarantee of unused materials; in our example, exclusion of five chapters for the semester schools and 12 for the schools on quarters. Though the traditional textbook places all needed information in one place, the mosaic of unmarked chapters among those with yellow highlights documents the need for custom texts directly matched to different course syllabi. Publishers are making such custom texts available and pricing them more attractively, but the two-pound, seven-hundred-page compendium still dominates the market.

International textbooks are the answer. Buying from the UK or Asia, students once could find texts at around 40 percent of the cost of the text in the US market. Sometimes framed in the context of the ethical drug pricing debate (“Why should US consumers subsidize foreign consumers and pay higher prices for essentially the same product?”), international text arbitrage represents another distortion of the student’s value proposition based on production and distribution processes of a physical product. While some international texts use lower cost (and quality) paper and less expensive or no color processing, floating heavy texts back and forth across the ocean adds expense, but no value, to attainment of the student’s learning goals.

Text rental programs are the way to go. Some schools, notably a set of early adopters in Wisconsin, have created effective textbook rental programs and report that students using the program save up to 50 percent of the cost of the print-based textbook. More recent explorations highlight some of the provider drawbacks that accompany the positive effect of rental programs on student savings. The State Board of Illinois estimated start up costs of $11 million dollars for a school the size of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and found issues with the length of time the book had to be used (up to 4 years) and the need for standardized choices to maximize the affordability and sustainability of the program (see link).

Libraries can provide copies on short-term loan for all students unwilling or unable to purchase a textbook. The proposed Ohio Senate legislation would mandate all state institutions of higher education to make available at least two copies of all required textbooks and other learning materials in the appropriate campus libraries.  Many libraries would be hard-pressed to meet this requirement without significant increases in funding.  One mid-sized community college in Ohio calculated that it would cost $131,730 to purchase two copies of all required texts for the Fall 2007 quarter. The materials budget for this same library is $280,000 per year; 47 percent of the materials budget would be used to pay for the books for one academic quarter.

Such a solution has severe limits in practice as well. The popularity of the textbooks would likely result in the books being placed on “closed reserve” and not permitted to leave the library. This would limit students’ study opportunities and make “open book” in-class tests impossible. Librarians also observe that students do not sit and read print materials on reserve—they photocopy them. Such a system blatantly encourages copyright infringement.

Students need to build a professional bookcase. This is contested territory. Andrew Spielman, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Dentistry at New York University, sees building a personal library as useful for graduates of the NYU Dentistry program. The school, which graduates approximately 8 percent of all newly minted dentists, has worked with VitalSource to create an off-line digital text as a primary resource available to NYU dental students. The students access a searchable set of learning materials aggregated from content taken from a variety of publishers. The DVD on which the materials are distributed can be moved among computers, individual notes can be shared among class members, and the students retain access to the materials after graduation.

On the other hand, outside of Gray’s Anatomy, how many print books actually endure as a trusted source of discipline-based knowledge? Name the countries and draw their boundaries on a map of the African continent. Recommend a treatment for depression. Decide where to dangle that participle. To accomplish any of these tasks, students are ill-advised to reach to a bookshelf for their college text. By the way, even Gray’s Anatomy has gone digital with CD-ROMs, websites and author discussion boards updating the print text. A subscription model, more than an ownership model, might provide more benefits to future dentists, as well as their future patients.

Spielman has been tracking student and faculty response to the Vital Book for the past several years. Once experienced with the digital bookshelf, the majority of students see the benefits of digital, though a notable minority still prefers print. Frank Daniels, VitalSource’s CEO, reports that in VitalSource’s experience 18 percent of students prefer digital to print when the content is equivalently priced and the content is aligned with learning objectives. When the alignment isn’t there, students who prefer print represent 94 percent of the student body. Align the contents of a digital bookshelf with curricular goals, price it cheaper than its print counterpart, and the percentage of students who select digital doubles.

Bookstores undividedly serve the student interests. Many universities supplement their operating budgets by defining the college bookstore as a profit center as well as a student service. Consequently, the university tries to balance increasing revenue at the bookstore with reducing textbook costs for the student. Roughly half of bookstores serving college markets now operate under revenue-generating licenses granted to national bookstore chains, with Follett (750 bookstores nationwide) and Barnes & Noble (more than 500 nationwide) leading the consolidation. College bookstores provide many value-added services in such areas as book exchange and return, distribution warehouse and point of purchase, faculty consultation, awareness and publicity, and financial aid accommodations. In exchange for offering those services plus a 4.9 percent pre-tax profit margin, the textbook price is marked up approximately 23 percent. To complete the picture, the National Association of College Stores data allocates the remainder of the textbook dollar to publisher cost centers (58.4 percent), author royalties (11.6 percent) and publisher income (7 percent) (see link). The bookstore’s important “point-of-presence” in the value added chain and current role in satisfying financial aid requirements can be preserved in a print-on-demand scenario we’ll visit later.

The textbook by itself is OK (a.k.a. the shift to multimedia and universal design for learning is misdirected). Zogby’s study supports the reasonable conclusion that faculty prefer up-to-date materials, which argues for currency and short revision cycles for textbooks. The Zogby research group also found that more than half of the faculty respondents assign supplementary materials when available, and to the extent the supplements are delivered in alternative modalities their benefits are validated by the work of Howard Gardner (multiple intelligences), Felder and Silverman (diverse learning styles), the Department of Justice (accommodations for Americans with Disabilities), and the Center for Applied Special Technology

(Universal Design for Learning). Succinctly stated, any concept to be learned can be enriched and extended through multiple means of representation, expression and engagement, arguing for supplemental materials that engage and inform in a variety of ways.

However, although faculty value up-to-date, multi-format content, many feel the price is too high. One in three (36 percent) says the price of textbooks is reasonable when students actually use the assigned textbook and supplements to learn the course material, but 28 percent say the cost of textbooks is too high and give the reason that most students do not use the textbook and supplemental materials. Another 27 percent of the faculty respondents said the cost of textbooks was just too high, period. Here again, the conclusion has face validity, faculty are most concerned about the value of the materials in supporting student learning, but also feel that the price of textbook bundles is too high. How do we solve the paradox of providing up-to-date, multi-format, improved learning at lower cost?

Digital Distribution

Digital distribution could be the answer, but here is yet another proposition to debate:

The market abhors digital texts. It is easy enough to find examples of failed eBook experiments, but it also is easy to trace the reasons for their failure. Typically, user dissatisfaction revolves around the technology (fatiguing screens, single purpose display device, material slow to load), organization (linear “page turners,” poorly indexed content), inconvenience (I hate being tethered to an on-line text, can’t read my book under the buckeye tree), and lack of flexibility (can’t take notes, can’t seamlessly jump to new content, search and navigation are weak). Faculty who don’t really make use of the required eText (or print texts for that matter) also annoy students.

The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACFSA) released their year-long study of the “broken” textbook market on June 1, 2007. After detailing a set of short term strategies similar to those above, Peter McElroy and colleagues, who prepared one of the foundational documents, launched into an impressive analysis of disaggregating textbook content and course materials and delivering them digitally rather than by truck.

In his testimony before the ACSFA, John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan (formerly known as Holtzbrinck Publishers, parent company of Bedford, Freeman & Worth), had this to say about custom and digital textbooks: “Custom texts are a prime example of market demand and advances in technology. A custom text enables faculty to choose exactly those materials—chapters from one or more textbooks, their own papers and lecture notes, white papers, independent data and research, for example—they wish to use in their classes. These custom texts combine publishers’ content, but also content from a variety of third-party sources.” This “print-on-demand” model suggests a strategy to move from generic texts to custom digital content, and one in which college bookstores can play an important role. On the other side of the bridge that crosses the digital divide, some of the eBooks from Bedford, Freeman, & Worth, well-advanced in their pedagogy and offered at half the price of the print text, hint to a born digital future.

Mark Nelson, digital content strategist for the National Association for College Stores, buys into the vision of a digital future, but puts the tipping point another five years down the road. The twin forces for change he sees are retirement of the baby-boom faculty, many of whom will never quite embrace non-print, and full emergence of the digital native population, described by Nelson and supported by Project Tomorrow data as students currently squirming in their seats in a sixth grade classroom. Content born digital meet learners born digital…but do we have to live through a five-year gestation? Perhaps; but by then the eBook reader may finally have achieved its promise for portability, contrast, and navigational richness.

Today’s students still typically prefer printed text to eBook readers, and Stacy Skelly, Assistant Director for Higher Education for the American Association for Publishers, puts this preference for print near the top of her list of impediments to digital content delivery. She’s right- monitor glare, dropped network connections, and confounding digital rights management strategies detract from learning, especially if the digital learning environment is just the print learning environment ported to the screen. However, if the pedagogy advanced by advanced faculty creates a different learning environment, different learning outcomes may appear.

Modest Proposals From the Instructional Designer’s Perspective

If the instructional designer’s world-view prevailed, the very first thing on every course syllabus would be a list of learning outcomes associated with that course. Working backward from those objectives, the pedagogy and the learning materials that support that pedagogy would be carefully selected to help the students meet those objectives. Learning materials, whether print or digital, would be focused and organized around the stated learning objectives. Libraries and the web would provide conduits for subsidized or free content for students pursuing a broader array of individual learning goals.

Alverno College’s (WI) Diagnostic Digital Portfolio website is a great place to learn how to describe attainable student learning outcomes. Explicitly stating what you hope students will learn is challenging, but an exercise that offers the most amazing of rewards. What is a learning objective? A behavioral learning outcome consistent with course goals. Revolutionary, don’t you think, to offer students up front a syllabus that specifies demonstrable learned behaviors? Maybe even better than telling students which book will be used in the course.

Kelly Driscoll, educator and founder of Digication, is both a digital pioneer and a teacher who believes in identifying learning outcomes upfront. Digication has been in the business of helping students, and the institutions in which they learn, to build ePortfolios around student learning outcomes. It wasn’t much of a stretch for her and her content partners to think about an expanded system that grouped digital content underneath learning objectives. Digication offers one model for distributing digital content in a focused, cost effective manner.

Gerry Handley has another model in mind as he and his team lay out plans for California’s Digital Marketplace. He discusses the CDM using the analogy of a farmer’s market, an open and browseable market with wares selectable by the consumer. This large-scope and well-designed approach to sharing digital content should be piloting phase one of a digital marketplace in fall 2007, allowing faculty members to identify and select content appropriate for populating a reading/resource list. These materials can be made available as print or digital, and the CDM will be designed for maximum flexibility and to accommodate commercial, non-commercial and content created by the faculty member. Somewhere down the road, students in the California State University system will be able to create ePortfolios in which to document their learned competencies. These learning outcomes will share metadata with the content used to achieve them and thereby help future faculty identify vetted learning materials.

Starting with the consumer, the Ohio eText Project is focusing on student learning outcomes in the world of digital delivery. With the support of the OhioLINK library consortium, eText Ohio has selected faculty members who teach large, introductory courses in colleges and universities across the state. Working with four leading commercial publishers (Bedford Freeman & Worth, Pearson Publishing, Thomson Publishing, and McGraw-Hill Publishing), the eTextOhio project will work with faculty to expand their repertoire of teaching strategies advantaged by digital texts, work with them to identify materials aligned with those strategies, and then evaluate student learning outcomes in the digitally-supported courses. The goals of eText Ohio are to deliver student materials at less than 50 percent of the cost of a new text, in all cases at a price point below what a student can achieve through used book use or exchange, and improve learning outcomes in the process. The eText Ohio project hopes to meet the California Digital Marketplace somewhere in the middle. CDM is building up from the content selection process and eText Ohio works down, selecting content based on identified learning objectives.

The DRM Dilemma

Commercial content can’t be distributed without mechanisms to collect revenues and preserve the rights of copyright holders. Open courseware projects, initiated under versions of the Creative Commons License, preserve intellectual property rights, but typically do not collect royalties for materials used in noncommercial settings. Three ambitious projects gaining acceptance include the MIT’s OpenCourseware Initiative, now institutionalized and on track to represent teaching materials used in 1,800 courses offered at MIT by 2008; eduCommons, an open courseware platform pioneered at Utah State University and one reason for the state of Utah’s decision to earmark $200,000 for open courseware content development and use; and Connexions, an open courseware project anchored at Rice University (TX) that uses Lulu for printing-on-demand delivery of content. Need more sources of digital content? Try the American Council of Learned Societies print-on-demand program, the ever-expanding Google Print Library Project, or the consortial Open Content Alliance.

So with this ambitious set of projects underway, we still need to ask why haven’t we arrived at digital nirvana? Why do we still need print-on-demand as an option to help get us there? Taken together, this set of comments address the “when” question:

  • “Students still love print.” —Stacy Skelly (American Association of Publishers)
  • “Just wait until the next generation of students grows up.” —Mark Nelson (NACS)
  • “The content must meet the students where they are:  video clips to their iPods, concise tutorials delivered to the field researcher, and flexible packages that can be absorbed between classes or while waiting to pick up the kids from soccer practice.” —Peter Murray (OhioLINK)
  • “Keep it simple, make it standards based.” —Rob Abel (IMS Global Learning Systems)
  • “We need to align incentives of our sales force with the goal of disseminating materials digitally.” —Dan Bartell (Pearson Publishing)
  • “When the inventory of digital assets nears parity with the inventory of learning materials available in print we’ll hit the tipping point.” —Frank Daniels (Vital Source). Daniels thinks this “inventory parity” could be realized in as little as 18 months.
  • “When the student participates more fully in populating the digital bookshelf.” —David Wiley (Utah State University)

Walking Down the Road: The Final Mile

As always, we have to calibrate our “change the world slider” somewhere between what the technologies are capable of delivering and what our social systems are able to absorb. David Wiley, lead architect of eduCommons and a faculty member at Utah State University, describes his ideal textbook as seeded by 30 percent of faculty-selected content that “magnetizes” 70 percent more content contributed from students taking the class engaged in active learning. Blaise Aguera y Arcas from Microsoft Live Labs offers a compelling example of an interface exquisitely designed for socially constructed knowledge spaces, and one able to place an entire legible copy of Dickens’ Bleak House on a single screen, preserving social context and page turning with an imaging algorithm that can zoom to a single word from within an entire text on screen. David Wiley, meet SeaDragon and Photosynth and may they someday serve your courses well (see link).

No doubt, there are many unanticipated consequences to moving to a digital textbook realm. Some have been mentioned, and thus anticipated- concerns about the digital divide, technical standards, digital rights management, and resistance of user communities weaned on print. For yet a wider framework in which to consider issues tied to a digital marketplace, read Cliff Lynch’s analysis. Ed Walton’s empirical study (April 2007) also raises important issues. He finds that faculty working with students using digital texts face a new kind of literacy challenge because students scan books as strings of found phrases, jumping over the linear progression of the author’s idea development. Ed argues that we need a new literacy to fully exploit the digital realm.

Editor’s note: Where do you stand on the digital textbook debate? E-mail us at; select responses will be published in our March 2008 issue.

And in the End

We still have the choice between legislated approaches and market-based approaches to reducing the high cost of textbooks in education. A wide continuum of options is available to faculty and institutions willing and able to change their instructional practices that favor a marketplace solution. By first identifying what the student should learn, an instructor can more appropriately value the content to help students reach those outcomes. The source of these materials can be the traditional for-profit publishers, the start-up companies that privilege the interface through which to construct the learning cycle, libraries, outputs from the minds and processes of the open courseware community, or a combination of the above.

As we move forward in re-developing the learning materials package to take advantage of the digital options available to us, we should celebrate the diversity of solutions that have emerged and ideally wrap them in common, and open, standards, as Rob Abel and the IMS organization would have us do. We may never solve the paradox of context and content (content is most useful within context, context-free learning objects are most re-usable), but thinking of learning objectives as magnets that collect content filings will get us part way down the path of a new, more affordable and more equitable pricing model for instructional materials, once known in the quaint phrase as “textbooks.”

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