For several decades, textbook publishers followed the same basic model: Pitch a hefty tome of knowledge to faculty for inclusion in lesson plans; charge students an equally hefty sum; revise and update its content as needed every few years. Repeat. But the last several years have seen a shift at colleges and universities—one that has more recently turned tectonic.
In a way, the evolution of the textbook has mirrored that in every other industry. Ownership has given way to rentals, and analog to digital. Within the broad strokes of that transition, though, lie divergent ideas about not just what learning should look like in the 21st century but how affordable to make it.
Let’s Get Digital
Pearson is one of the biggest publishers of educational books in the world, with a roster of 1,500 textbooks in the US market. Last month, it announced that going forward it would adopt a “digital first” strategy. It’ll still produce physical textbooks, but students will rent by default with the option to buy after the rental period ends.
“Our job is to provide the very best content with the very best learning outcomes at the very best prices for students that we can,” says Pearson CEO John Fallon. “This model enables us to do that.”
It also enables Pearson to staunch the bleeding caused by an explosion in the second-hand market. A company called Chegg launched the first major online textbook rental service in 2007; Amazon followed suit in 2012. Both advertise savings of up to 90 percent off the sticker price. And that’s just two examples. In fact, the market has spent the last decade in something of an unvirtuous circle. As students flock to more affordable options, textbook prices have skyrocketed to make up for the lost revenue. The price of textbooks has increased 183 percent over the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Students started to reject the expensive textbooks. What they did, since they had no other choice, was find ways to save money on textbooks,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of educational publisher Cengage. “The volumes of textbooks publishers were selling declined rapidly for years. However, they always had this magical price lever. They could always just increase the prices, so their revenue looked relatively stable.”
The major publishers are publicly traded companies, under pressure to demonstrate constant growth. Pearson’s digital-first strategy is a significant step toward a more sustainable business model. Under the new system, ebooks will cost an average of $40. Those who prefer actual paper can pay $60 for the privilege of a rental, with the option to purchase the book at the end of the term. The price of a new print textbook can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars; under digital-first, students have to actively want to pay that much after a course is already over, making it an unlikely option for most.
The benefits to Pearson are self-evident. More than half of its revenue comes from digital already; this move accelerates that transition, while providing substantial savings in printing overhead. It also helps nudge faculty toward using Pearson’s digital platforms, which for $79 offer an array of ancillary features like homework plans and assessment tools along with access to the book.
Students stand to gain, as well. In addition to costing less than their physical counterparts, digital textbooks take up less space, and they’ll get more frequent updates. “Up until now the product development cycle and the revision cycle were still driven by essentially the way the world has been the last 40 years,” Fallon says. “From now on all updates will be digital first. If there’s a scientific breakthrough, a compelling business case study, developments in contemporary politics or world events, you don’t need to wait three years. You can, from one semester to another, update content.”
That applies also to updates around not just what people learn, but how they learn it. As new research comes out around efficacy in education, Pearson’s digital textbooks and related platforms can adjust in kind. Fallon points to an upcoming Pearson app called Aida, which uses machine learning—what else—to provide personalized feedback for learning calculus.
“What the use of reinforced learning does is enable the machine to respond in a much more adaptive, personal way to your needs. That doesn’t mean you no longer need the lectures—you do,” Fallon says. “Both approaches have a role to play. But technology allows you to unleash and combine them to better effect.”
But more technology doesn't always mean better results. Within K-12 learning environments, the digital divide means that students in low-income and rural households have less access to reliable internet and fewer connected devices on which to complete the online portions of their homework. And while Pearson's initiative applies only to textbooks in higher ed, the shift to digital has implications at the collegiate level as well.
“We are finding that even though undergraduates prefer to read digitally, these preferences aren’t actually showing positive or even equalness in terms of effect on comprehension,” says Lauren Singer Trakhman, who studies reading comprehension at the University of Maryland’s Disciplined and Learning Research Laboratory. “When it comes to things like pulling details, key facts, numbers, and figures, participants are doing a lot better after reading in print.”
Not only do students retain less when reading digitally, Trakhman says, they’re more likely to overestimate how well they comprehended the material. And that’s before you take into account that students reading a textbook on a device do so amid a barrage of notifications that pull them away from the material. Even without those additional distractions, which Trakhman rules out in her research, students read more quickly and less deeply. They reread sentences less. And even when an ebook layout mimics that of a physical textbook, they move around the page less, potentially missing important diagrams, sidebars, or other supporting materials.
“Digital text, digital work, is often engaged with at a lower level of attention. By moving everything online, it’s going to become even more decontextualized. Overall, I think there’s going to be less deeper learning going on,” Trakhman says. “I believe there’s a time and a place for digital, but educators need to be mindful of the time and place for using these resources. Rolling out these digital suites is not really the best for student learning.”
Pearson’s digital-first initiative will dramatically bring down textbook costs on average, albeit by phasing out the concept of ownership. But increasingly, colleges are embracing textbooks that cost … nothing.
Just as traditional software has a thriving open source community, textbooks have Open Educational Resources, complete textbooks that typically come free of charge digitally, or for a small fee—enough to cover the printing—in hard copy. And while it’s not an entirely new concept, OER has gained momentum in recent years, particularly as support has picked up at an institutional level, rather than on a course by course basis. According to a 2018 Babson College survey, faculty awareness of OER jumped from 34 percent to 46 percent since 2015.
One of OER’s leading proponents is OpenStax, a nonprofit based out of Rice University that offers a few dozen free textbooks, covering everything from AP Biology to Principles of Accounting. In the 2019–2020 academic year, 2.7 million students across 6,600 institutions used an OpenStax product instead of a for-profit equivalent.
The knock against OER is that, well, you get what you pay for. “One faculty member told me only half-jokingly, that OER is like a puppy that’s free. You get the free puppy, but then you have to do all the work,” says Cengage’s Hansen, who argues that traditional publishers provide critical supporting materials, like assessment questions, that OER often lacks, and can push more regular updates.
But OpenStax editor-in-chief David Harris brushes off those dismissals. “We go to the same author pools that the publishers go to,” Harris says. “We put our authors through an extensive evaluation process. When they start working on the project, we have an extensive peer review process. You can’t shortcut that. We resemble a traditional publisher on that front.”
Harris also argues that while OpenStax updates materials annually as needed, it doesn’t do full revisions just for the sake of it. “Our physics book, which we published in 2012, we haven’t done a revision yet, and we don’t want to,” he says. “The laws of physics haven’t changed for the last eight years, I can guarantee you that.”
By virtue of being free, OER materials also heavily skew toward digital, with hardcover as a secondary option. (Or you can download the PDF and print it out yourself.) The same caveats about efficacy apply. But at least OER doesn’t lock you into one digital platform, the way the major publishers do. OpenStax alone counts around 50 ecosystem partners to provide homework and testing support. Faculty can choose the one that best suits their needs, versus being locked into Pearson's platform when you buy a Pearson textbook.
“You pick what’s best for your course,” says Harris. “We have open license content that you can adapt, and then you can pick and choose from five or six online homework platforms that better meet your curricular needs. That’s getting more flexibility, more innovation, at a much lower price.”
OER isn’t the right solution for everyone; not every course has a viable OER textbook option, and even those that do might find a major publisher’s take on the material superior. That same Babson survey featured repeated concerns about the quality of both images and text in OER materials. But if the textbook ownership model is inexorably changing toward an uncertain end, it’s heartening that at least one final destination is free.
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Or you could always split the difference.
That’s the territory Cengage wants to stake out. Late last summer, the educational publishing behemoth—it announced a planned merger with McGraw Hill in May; the combined company would surpass all but Pearson in market capitalization—rolled out Cengage Unlimited, a “Netflix for Textbooks” model that rolls all textbook rentals and digital platform access into a single rate: $120 for a semester, $180 for a full year, or $240 for two years. Almost a year in, the US-only program has a million subscribers.
“One of the beauties of the model is the customer, in this case the faculty, does not need to change anything,” says Hansen. “And it’s significantly more affordable for the students.”
For students, though, the savings depend on how many of your courses rely on Cengage textbooks. And since those decisions most commonly happen at the faculty level, that number can change dramatically from one semester to the next. In this way it maybe mirrors the Netflix model a little too closely; what you get out of it can change precipitously from one month to the next.
As more and more coursework winds up online, the Balkanization of teaching resources cuts ever deeper. “You’re talking about students potentially operating on 10 or 15 different platforms as part of their four-year learning experience in college. That is suboptimal. That’s clearly suboptimal,” Hansen says. “What we’re trying to do is create interoperability, where you can actually make the interfaces similar, and allow the data to travel from one platform to another.”
Cengage acquired a company called Learning Objects in 2015 that could potentially act a bridge. That process, though, is extremely early days. And the incentives for it to flourish seem minimal, given the inherent value of locking teachers and their students into a single ecosystem across as many courses as possible.
But at least it’s part of the conversation. And while the business of buying and selling—or leasing, more often—textbooks looks much different than it did just a few years ago, at least that evolution tilts toward affordability.