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Technology Meets the Textbook: The Disruption of Education Deepens
May/June 2014 Issue

Just as music, games, publishing, and communication have been forever changed by technology, education seems to be developing as the next frontier, ripe for change. Education is expensive, especially in our current Great Recession. In August 2013, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan in which the federal government will develop a report card for colleges by 2015. The report card will measure tuition increases, graduation rates, student debt, and graduates’ earnings. The goal is both to force accountability on colleges and to help students in selecting the best schools for their needs and pocketbooks. Eventually, this legislation will link federal financial aid to these evolving performance measures.

In October 2012 at the National Press Club, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that “over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete. The world is changing. This has to be where we go as a country” (“Education Chief Duncan Wants Textbooks to Become Obsolete,” Fox News, Oct. 2, 2012; On the K–12 level, more than 20 states across the U.S. had made moves toward etextbooks by 2010, aided by the adoption of the Common Core benchmark standards for math and reading. In fact, the textbook industry has already been moving toward digitization. The same Fox News post quoted above reported these comments from Vinnet Madan, senior vice president of new ventures at McGraw-Hill Education: “We haven’t produced anything that’s print-only in over three years. One hundred percent of what we have is available to school districts electronically.”

And the same holds true for the higher-education market. “The notion that college publishers are resisting digital technology is a howler,” explains Processed Media’s Joseph Esposito. “The textbook publishers have been trying to go all-digital for a decade or more. Their incentive: To reduce or eliminate the used-book market. But the faculty have resisted adopting digital texts.” Faculty and perhaps students as well. The used book market has been a boon to students who both buy and sell used texts to save money. Studies continue to show strong support for heavy, printed tomes by students.

Technology is not only changing the nature of the textbook, but nearly every other aspect of education—from online schools to digital classrooms, from flipped or blended classrooms to new, interactive teaching materials. Studies note that today’s children are already technology-savvy by the time they reach kindergarten. One study by Common Sense Media found that 38% of children younger than 2 have used some type of mobile device, and 40% of families with children now have some type of tablet device in their homes ( However, education issues in the U.S. are inherently political and often controversial, adding layers of complexity to innovation and change. With the often intractable positions of state boards of education (think of Texas and creationism in science textbooks), moving to less structured, more interactive forms of learning materials in K–12 markets still faces major hurdles. Colleges are not much better off. These institutions are in the position of trying to innovate while facing pressure to lower the cost of their programs yet still having to graduate students in 4 years.

So, are textbooks the next frontier for the digital revolution? Will advantages such as cheaper costs and the potential for more advanced, compelling learning experiences win the day? Or, are textbooks to remain a stumbling block in the digitization of education and cost of college?

Textbook Publishing Trends

Textbooks and adult trade books, according to Census Bureau data, each account for about 25% of U.S. book publishing revenue; professional books (20% of revenue), children’s books (10%), and reference books (5%) comprise the other half of book revenues. Bowker estimates that about 335,000 new books are published in the U.S. in a typical year. SingleMind Consulting has estimated that the higher-education market for etextbooks grew 44% in 2011 to a total of $267 million (

The American educational marketplace includes approximately 56,500 institutions with revenues estimated at $50 billion. Market researchers believe future growth opportunities for this sector revolve around an expansion of online education, innovative alternative/continuing education options, and career development. Computers have become an essential technology in education from K–12 through adulthood. Technology has never been a major “draw” for students in selection of schools, where academic reputation, prestige, programs, and campus life features still dominate. For-profit colleges focus on convenience and flexibility, with a much heavier reliance on technology in both teaching and student interaction.

Corporate activity in the textbook arena appears to be heating up. Recently, Intel bought Kno, well-known for its ebook creation platform. Last October, Amazon bought TenMarks, an online math instruction company, with the goal of developing educational apps. LexisNexis has created its Digital Library for Professor Review Copies, which also allows students to check out ebooks on their PDAs through OverDrive or read them over the web. As we went to press, LexisNexis Legal & Professional announced a new interactive, role-playing feature for 16 selected course books and study aid titles in its ebooks called Evidence Challenge ( It allows students to apply evidentiary rules while working their way through the textbooks.

As technology continues to advance, we can anticipate increased activity as companies reposition and move into new areas through acquisition or development. Google launched an effort to sell or rent textbooks through Google Play just before the Fall 2013 school year. Flat World Knowledge initially used a “freemium” model in which textbooks are free but users pay for flash cards, printed copies, or other supplementary materials; however, due to lack of business, the company began to charge $20 for the basic online text package. This period of trial and experimentation is expected to continue as publishers seek pricing models and students get more experience with etexts.

Disruption Reigns in Academia

In its 2013 “Trends in College Pricing” report (, the College Board found that although pricing varies widely for types of institutions and for parts of the country, textbook pricing has increased 82% in the last 10 years and now averages $1,200/year for students. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data finds that textbook prices have risen 812% in the last 30 years—even more than the 559% increase in college tuition. Building off this data—and the financial dilemma that it causes students—the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) Education Fund and Student PIRGs at campuses across the U.S. published their own report, “Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives” ( Their survey of more than 2,000 students from 150 campuses found the following:

  • 65% of students decided against buying a textbook due to cost.
  • 94% of students not buying their textbooks feared their grades would suffer.
  • 82% of students felt that having the option to have free online texts would significantly improve their studying and performance in school.
  • Nearly 50% reported that the cost of texts affected their decisions on which classes to take.

Today more than 2,500 professors have agreed to adopt open source texts for their classes, and many colleges are starting efforts to support the creation of these alternatives. The National Association of College Stores reports that 3,000-plus schools now offer rental programs for books as well. Another innovative option is textmarlin (, which allows students to buy and sell their used books directly with each other instead of dealing with intermediaries and their price hikes.

Technology offers a variety of other potential solutions to college costs along a wide spectrum, from blended classrooms at one end to massive open online courses (MOOCs) at the other; from pricey state-of-the-art, technology-enhanced textbooks to born-digital, copyright-free open educational resources (OER). The revolution isn’t so much in the technology as it is in its impact on the educational enterprise. Some see a sea change coming in education, affecting changes at the very core of learning and teaching; others see enhancements and tweaking to a tried-and-true educational system honed for hundreds of years. The key is change and technology, and the revolution has begun.

Even libraries are winning small battles in this evolution. Last fall’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Wiley v. Kirtsaeng made it clear that libraries can legally lend foreign-manufactured materials. Increasingly, libraries play the on-campus role of providing online-course-reserve materials—often brokering interlibrary loan and copyright clearance issues for faculty in the process. However, even bigger changes are taking hold as open access, open source, and related efforts have created new models for how we define new types of publishing and computer software.

Making Connexions

OERs and MOOCs as well as textbooks, course modules, software, videos (such as those in Khan Academy), and other products freely available for educational use often use Creative Commons licenses for distribution and continued development. One excellent example of this is Rice University’s OER repository, Connexions (, a “dynamic digital educational ecosystem consisting of an educational content repository and a content management system optimized for the delivery of educational content.” Connexions currently houses more than 17,000 learning objects or modules and other materials—textbooks, articles, and other resources—that are used by 2 million-plus people each month. And use is free and like a sandbox—offering “frictionless remixing” of everything in the repository with other content.

Using an XML format and built for free and open use, Connexions integrates the Creative Commons open-content license to allow “others to use and reuse it legally—while still getting recognition and attribution for their efforts.” Users are encouraged to “write each module to stand on its own so that others can easily use it in different collections and contexts. Instructors then use a collection editor/creator to weave modules into customized collections specially designed to meet the needs of their students.” In this way, Connexions actively promotes collaboration to help “knowledge grow more quickly, advancing the possibilities for new ideas from which we all benefit.”


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Nancy K.Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries. 


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