In a land where one cannot move for Royal baby hysteria, I seem to have found myself reading a great many “Death of the Textbook” stories in the past week. A good series from the Economist on the inexorable rise of educational technologies (29 June 2013), a weak and woolly piece from Reuters, and an endless supply of “MOOCs are good for you” announcements. As a textbook publisher and author (1967- 1979) I admit to a nostalgia for a market even then enthralled with the lore of its own heritage. In a swoop on Royal branding that would never be tolerated today, I have before me, as I write this, copies of the Nelson New Royal Primers and the Nelson Royal Readers, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in Edinburgh, and carrying, without any authority that I can detect, the Royal coat of arms. These books were published to catch the popular enthusiasm derived from the 1870 Education Act. I was still, incredibly enough, reprinting them in the 1960s. I doubt that the new-born Prince of the House of Windsor will be brought up upon them, though they do describe a world closer to his than ours. As his father says to little Willie in Royal Readers 3 “I want you, my boy, to do your duty in the station, whatever it may be, to which it will please God to call you , and not to set your heart on any mere earthly success…”.

Now the longevity of the textbook – an invention really of the 1840s unless you see it as a lineal descendant of the chapbook – is seriously called into question. Reuters quote surveys that indicate student conservatism around change, and indicate that the real pressure is pricing (http://www.euronews.com/business-newswires). Other surveys seem to show a real fear of buying into the digital and then not having access to downloads after upgrading devices (sounds like a case for the Personal Cloud Library!). All seem agreed that print pricing has lost touch with student buying power, even in learning environments in Europe where the textbook is more peripheral to the whole learning experience. But particularly striking was a survey conducted for BISG by Bowker (Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education Vol 3, Part 2) (http://www.bisg.org/news-5-847-press-release-now-available-student-attitudes-toward-content-in-higher-education-volume-3.php). Here we learn that in the last two years students who admit to downloading course content from unauthorized websites has risen from 20% of students interviewed to 34%, and that those who admitted scanning or photocopying textbook materials rose from 21% to 31%. Two years, and these are only those who admit to this allegedly victimless crime. In another two years we shall be beyond 50% on both counts. And, despite valiant efforts like CourseSmart, few people seem to see this as a slow motion car crash. We will not fix the textbook, in print or digitally, so where do we go now?

Textbook publishers have been politely snooty about teaching resource exchange sites for years. Even when www.teacherspayteachers.com announced that a teacher member had earned a million dollars from lesson plan sales this was regarded as a strictly limited application, and certainly confined to k-12. When Nelson’s Royal Readers were youngsters so was the Times Educational Supplement, and in its re-incarnation as TES Connect (www.tesconnect.com) is showing every sign of providing the transformative power which will enable it to succeed while textbook publishers, migrating digitally, fail. The launch of TES Australia this week comes hard on the development of TES India, and the launch in the US of www.sharemylesson.com with the American Federation of Teachers. The service based from the UK has 2.5m registered users and claims to connect 52 m teachers from over 200 countries downloading 3.6 m resources a week from a store of material that now tops 636 thousand. Last month TPG bought this property from Charterhouse for £400m ($600m). Reflect that McGraw Hill sold this year to Apollo for $2.4 billion. Add in the fact that the last net profit figure anyone ever saw on TSL, the parent of TES Connect, was £45m, and you have a picture of the way in which textbook assets are being depreciated. Is TSL worth 25% of McGraw Hill Education? Almost certainly not, but at least TPG have an asset that they can exit to a distressed ex-textbook publisher in due course (though not Pearson, who have effectively made their own exit through diversification.

So why are there no real community networks in higher education? There seem to be a hundred reasons, but the one that interests me is the MOOC argument. Perhaps indeed Coursera will turn into the community resource, but at present the course competition is what drives the market. I note this week that I can now do a Masters in Computer Science from Georgia Tech for $6600, with all learning materials attached. The way for publishers to survive in this market is surely to move beyond personalized publishing (light adaptation of courseware for particular teachers or institutions) towards making all of their material available as downloadable learning objects, for inclusion in MOOCs and elsewhere. And concentrating on areas where they have subject/author brand strengths to build MOOC inclusive communities there. But nobody wants to do this for fear of disembowelling the existing business model. In fact, come to think of it, its only when we are truly desperate, like TES when its recruitment advertising markets fell over in the recession, that we have the courage to stop “migrating” and start “transforming”.

keep looking »