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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Online testing and study aids...

There have been a couple news stories lately about online testing and study aids for students. Two in particular seem to be getting some attention: ACETheExam.com and Flat World Knowledge.

ACETheExam was announced in a press release earlier this week. It is a new initiative by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to offer students practice exams in four popular courseareas: Intro Psych, US History, Principles of Economics and General Chemistry. In brief, the tool allows students to buy self-scoring practice exams made up of 15-20 questions that cover key topics in the course, drawn from a typical textbook. When I taught as a faculty member, this is the type of content students used to get for "free" as part of the "add-ons" that came with textbooks. It may be a publisher strategy though to reduce the cost of traditional textbooks and make more money off of the ancilliaries, since many states and students are pushing for a separation of the add-ons from the traditional texts.

Given the current state of technology, I expected this tool do more than just self-score quizzes at 5-6 cents per question. The SAT exam prep tools by ETS might be a good model to look at. If you get an answer wrong, it may ask you more questions, and then take you to lessons to explain the concepts. Such an approach allows for more self-directed learning. Perhaps I am a bit idealistic, but in the end, shouldn't it be about learning and not just the test? Perhaps when several people pushed me the link on this new development I was expecting a bit more.

Flat World Knowledge
Flat World Knowledge (FWK) is another group that has been getting a lot of press lately. Thanks, perhaps in large part, to the press stories coming out of the Student PIRGS lately that focus on open source textbooks. I have received a good number of e-mails on stories about FWK, and several requests for my opinion. The marketing certainly has been interesting, with the cute stick-figure videos. The real product does not come out to 2009, however. I have not seen the actual product yet, and screenshots are not enough to quel my ingrained faculty cynicism, so it is difficult to assess the real quality.

That said, I do have to admit that I like some of the basic elements of the business model -- faculty pick the content, students pick the format. This is an idea I have pushed for a while now. We are working on some initiatives to do the same. The faculty are a barrier though. Some of the student data I have seen suggests that students are afraid (for lack of a better word) to buy textbooks in a format other than what the faculty member is using. This is changing, and faculty are becoming more sensitive to textbook prices (and their role in causing textbook prices to increase). Faculty really have to be won over though. Solving that puzzle is critical.

It is interesting that they plan to give the digital away for free, but then charge if students want other formats. Their site explains:
We then turn around and sell things of value to that large market – more
convenient ways to consume our free book (print, audio, PDF) and efficient ways
to study (study aids). Sure, we’ll make less money per student than the big
guys. But that’s okay. We’ll be selling to a lot more of them, and we’ll be
doing it for a lot less money (thanks to technology like web-hosted services,
XML, print-on-demand, and more). Like we said… just a smarter way to do
business. For all of us.

So here is the dilemma. Most students do not currently like digital versions of textbooks. While there appear to be no statistical difference in student outcomes when they use the digital versus the print, students do report greater eye fatigue with current delivery options. This gets coupled with the digital divide problem -- students who can make best use of the digital option are typically the more economically well-positioned, because they have better access to computing technology, higher quality displays, and are more likely to have had more exposure and experience with technology -- allowing them to be more comfortable with the digital option. Thus, students who need the lower cost option most, the socio-economically disadvantaged, are likely to have to rely on the traditional media more. So the dilemma is that poorer students still have to pay more to get content in the format that best matches their needs, experience, and access to technology.

That said, there is no perfect solution to this problem out there. We are working to solve this problem too, and our solution will also have its problems. As the Japanese saying goes, "nothing is so good that it cannot be improved." While it means competition for us, in my opinion FWK is a good step forward for the course materials industry as it will help further test out models where the content and the format are separated. FWK, like AceTheExam, will charge for access to study guides (and likely other ancilliaries), further emphasizing the split among pieces of content. It will also test out some new business models to reduce costs that could work to the whole industry's advantage -- such as print-on-demand.

Bottom Line:
While it means competition for us, FWK's business model also represents opportunity. By separating the content and the format, I also see opportunities for FWK to work with college stores. Our paired strengths may create a greater win-win for students and institutions than separate initiatives. There are advantages for a company like FWK to work with college stores -- and for college stores to work with FWK. Both sides have some unique advantages. Anyone from FWK reading this note who might want to have a discussion?

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