This blog is dedicated to the topics of Course materials, Innovation, and Technology in Education. it is intended as an information source for the college store industry, or anyone interested in how course materials are changing. Suggestions for discussion topics or news stories are welcome.

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Friday, August 31, 2012

EPIC 2020: A Bleak Future for Higher Ed

William Sams, recently appointed interim associate provost for information technology and chief information officer at Ohio University, has a rather dark view of the future of higher education.

In his world, campuses will be reserved for the ultra-wealthy or athletically gifted because most college degrees will have been replaced by badges earned through free online courses. In addition, Apple will buy Amazon to become a learning resource giant, Google will deliver free online classes called Evolving Personal Information Construct (EPIC) where students can earn those badges, and all of it will happen by 2020. Sams presented his observations in a web video called EPIC 2020 (embedded below).

“It’s not my sole objective to be right or wrong here, but to get people talking about things that need to be discussed,” Sams told eCampus News. “All of us are trapped in the paradigm of how things have been, the system we’ve existed in all our lives. A lot of [educators] have a worldview that makes it impossible for them to even see solutions to problems that exist today.”

In the video, Sams predicts Congress will eliminate Pell Grants next year, students will demand colleges only charge for learning assessment, and new funding will go to free online learning platforms to fill the void left by the disruption of traditional higher education. In addition, Apple buys Amazon to create the world’s largest content-distribution site, called Applezon.

“I see some of those things happening,” Martin Van Der Werf, a blogger for The College of 2020 ed-tech site, told eCampus News. “They won’t replace higher ed altogether, but serve some pockets of higher ed. The video is almost a work of science fiction, and the value in sci-fi is that it helps you image worlds that don’t exist yet. Sci-fi stories draw plausible scenarios that make you think of what is possible, and that’s why this video might be valuable.”

One of Sams’ projections is already starting to come to fruition. On July 10, Google launched its first free online class, called Power Searching with Google. Students will use Google+ groups to discuss class materials and will earn a certificate when they finish the course.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Survey Gives E-Text Pilots Mixed Grades

As 27 colleges and universities get set to launch a second round of e-textbook pilot programs, Internet2, the high-speed networking group partnering with Educause on its program, has released a study of five universities that conducted similar e-text pilots last spring.

Students liked saving money with the e-text alternatives, but were not as impressed by reading on electronic devices, found the e-book platforms hard to navigate, and on a whole, preferred to stay with print books. In addition, professors in the survey did not use the collaborative features built into the platforms, such as the ability to share notes or create links, according to a report in the Chronicle for Higher Education.

That report found that cost and portability were deciding factors for students to buy an e-text. However, they proved to be difficult to read and, because faculty didn’t use the enhanced features available with the platform, the e-books failed to help students interact with classmates or the instructor.

“With technology, many things change with repeated use,” said Bradley Wheeler, vice president for information technology, University of Indiana, Bloomington. “People have lots of early first impressions as they experience new things, and then over time you start to see things become more mainstream as technology improves and skills and even attitudes toward use improve.”

Wheeler developed the program at Indiana, in which the university negotiated with publishers to buy e-textbooks in bulk to get a better per-book price and then charged students a mandatory fee to cover the cost. Cornell and the Universities of Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin at Madison participated with Indiana in the pilot program and survey.

The research also had recommendations for schools considering this e-text approach, including making sure e-texts are available in a variety of formats and training instructors to use the features built into digital course materials.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Survey: Professors Open to Modern Techniques

Professors have mixed feelings about technologies in the academic world, but most are trying to get their arms around new ideas and processes. That’s the conclusion of a new survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group focus on faculty views of online education, in addition to professors’ outlook on the growth of e-textbooks, digital library collections, data monitoring, and the idea of moving away from traditional lecturing.

The survey is based on the responses of 4,564 faculty from various types of institutions, and 591 administrators responsible for academic technology at their campuses.

Tech tools intended to help faculty manage tasks and, by extension, reduce their stress seem to be having the opposite effect. The increase in technology appears to increase stress levels for some professors. Some suggest that has to do with professors being available 24/7 through e-mail and text.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Music Suit May Decide Fate of Used E-Books

Come Oct. 5, the music and publishing industries will probably be glued to the copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Capitol Records against ReDigi, an online startup selling previously owned digital music. The suit is slated to head to U.S. District Court in New York City to decide whether ReDigi has the legal right to buy digital songs from their original purchasers and resell them to other consumers.
Although the suit deals with music files, publishers are watching carefully because ReDigi expressed to Publishers Weekly an intent to resell used e-books in the same manner. Publishing companies that were counting on e-books to zap the used-book market out of existence may now be faced with the prospect of an even larger market if ReDigi prevails in court.

However, unlike the secondary sale of CDs and print books, the musicians and authors would receive a payment from ReDigi for each used digital item sold. ReDigi has plans to let recording companies and publishers get a cut, too. MIT’s Technology Review explained the details of ReDigi’s business model, but in short it works like this: ReDigi transfers a music file to its cloud servers while simultaneously deleting the file from the seller’s synched device. When the file is resold, the reverse occurs. The sum received is split among ReDigi, the seller, the artist, and eventually the producing company.

Capitol’s lawsuit claims ReDigi violates copyright law because it’s actually making a copy of the music file when it’s uploaded to the cloud servers, then making another copy when it’s downloaded to a new buyer.

For its part, ReDigi has built some antipiracy controls into the transaction. Music files are checked for legal ownership before being accepted for resale; “ripped” files are rejected. A digital signature is added to each file when it’s resold so that companies could track any illegal activity thereafter.

If it gets the chance to resell e-books, ReDigi also plans to sweeten the deal for publishers by harvesting and sharing reader data from the used titles—such as length of time spent, number of times the e-book was accessed, and skipped sections—that could aid publishers in better understanding their audience. That’s information that could be particularly handy for textbook publishers.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New Site Helps Sort Through Online Course Offerings

College students can go online for everything from a pizza to their textbooks for the upcoming semester. Now there’s a web site that purports to help them get a better job after graduation.

Skilledup.com is a portal for online courses and practical training programs. With a sluggish economy and a tight job market for college graduates, the site has been designed to make it easy to find and compare course options through the use of keyword searches. It claims to have more than 40,000 online courses from hundreds of providers, and is working to include massive open online course sites, such as Udacity and Coursera.

“If education doesn’t have [return on investment], it probably doesn’t deserve to be called education,” said Nick Gidwani, who launched the site Aug. 21. “There are so many kids out there earning seven bucks an hour who can have a decent life in a short period of time. … And this is one way to achieve that.”

Gidwani created the site after watching two interns he had hired for $12 an hour land high-paying jobs in just months after taking a series of low-cost online courses. The site was his solution for workers to sort through all the possible courses available online.

“There are so many kids graduating these days who are smart and really computer-savvy, but don’t really have any skills that translate on Day One,” he told eCampus News. “So many people spend $100,000 on a college education and don’t have much to show on the first day of work. That’s unfortunate.”

Friday, August 24, 2012

Opinions Changing About Electronic Devices in Schools

A new back-to-school poll from SodaHead found that attitudes about digital device usage in schools are changing. Nearly 75% of respondents were against banning cellphones from school property and 31% felt laptops should be allowed in high school classrooms.

SodaHead is a polling site that allows people to share their opinions on topics ranging from entertainment and gossip to education and politics. While the school survey questions are a bit vague, opinions expressed on the polls may be helpful to track trends of the young people the site targets.

Just 27% of the more than 2,000 respondents were in favor of banning cellphones, with 41% willing to let students bring them to school, if they are off during class time. Texting during class didn’t fare well, with 52% voting no and another 31% saying it should be allowed only during an emergency.

When it came to tablet computers, 29% felt they should be permitted in high school and 21% would like to see them used in middle school. Thirty-one percent of respondents would allow laptops in high school, with another 25% willing to allow them in middle school.

Views on replacing printed textbooks with e-books were mixed, with 30% approving of the idea, 34% saying no, and 36% saying they would like to see e-books introduced in some classrooms, but not all.

The poll remains open to anyone interested in participating.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Udacity Pulls Math Course over Quality Concerns

Udacity, a start-up firm offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) taught by “world-renowned university instructors,” recently decided to cancel its Logic and Discrete Mathematics course because it didn’t live up to the quality standards set by the company.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in an e-mail that while the entire class was recorded and edited, it didn’t meet the “quality bar” during the firm’s internal testing. Thrun did not say what that quality bar was, how many students had signed up, or whether the course would be offered in the future, but did praise the work done on the project by Jonathan D. Farley, associate professor of computing and information science, University of Maine at Orono.

“We want to make clear this disappointment is in no way a reflection on Jonathan, but on the Udacity team and the constraints we put on ourselves,” Thrun wrote.

Farley said he spent 45 hours recording the lectures and three hours of preparation for each hour recorded, but he also agreed with Udacity’s decision to pull the plug on the course.

“I blundered when recording some of the logic, and the camera was not on,” he said. “And also some of the mathematical proofs needed to be explained in a different way. It’s a totally different way of teaching because you have to figure out how you can reach 100,000 people.”

MOOCs make headlines for offering an online alternative to traditional educational programs, often free or practically no charge, but critics remain. As one commentator to the Chronicle article suggested, “Quality control is particularly important at this stage, when so many critical eyes are looking at online curricula,” so Udacity’s proactive approach could be the kind of move that may silence some detractors.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Broadband Access Still and Issue for Schools

While many educators are excited about the possibilities online and blended learning have to offer, digital access continues to be a stumbling block.

“Across the country, within many—if not the majority—of states, there are still areas where broadband access is very, very limited, and oftentimes these are schools and students who would most benefit through online and blended learning,” said David Teeter, director of policy for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning during an Internet Innovation webinar on broadband in education. “That gap still exists, unfortunately.”

Having broadband is the logical and necessary first step to adopting online and blended learning, but progress is being made. For instance, 30 states currently have virtual schools or initiatives, 30 states and Washington, D.C., operate more than 200 virtual charter schools, and 70% of school districts in the U.S. offer online courses to students, according to a list of statistics Teeter provided.

When broadband access is available, educators are able to use data systems and platforms to support learning. Broadband use will also make it easier for schools to prepare for the expected shift from printed textbooks to digital formats and make educational records more consistent across school and state lines.

“[These are] really exciting opportunities, but it’s really important that schools, districts, and states make sure the broadband capacity is in place to enable this,” Teeter said.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Media Company Looks to Profit from Education

The Association of American Publishers estimates the K-12 textbook market approaches $3 billion in the United States, with an additional $4 billion spent on teacher guides, testing, and reference material. So it should come as no surprise that companies other than traditional publishers are looking to grab a piece of that pie.

Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and TLC, is doing just that with the introduction of a line of digital textbooks called Techbook that will provide video, virtual labs, and downloadable content, according to a report in The New York Times.

“It’s kind of perfect for us,” Discover Communications CEO David M. Zaslav told the Times. “Educational content is core to our DNA, and we’re unencumbered—unlike traditional textbook publishers, we’re not defending a dying business.”

Tough words perhaps, but education publishers are not going to concede their turf without a fight. Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have all introduced digital educational products and recently teamed with Apple to sell high school textbooks through its iBook store.

“Over the last 10 years alone, we’ve invested $9.3 billion in digital innovations that are transforming education,” said Will Ethridge, CEO of Pearson North America. “One way to describe it would be an act of ‘creative destruction.’ By this I mean we’re intentionally tearing down an outdated, industrial model of learning and replacing it with more personalized and connected experiences for each student.”

In the meantime, Discovery has a staff of 200 working on its Techbook project. The cloud-based technology works on any hardware a district might be using and will cost about $38 per student for a six-year subscription, compared to the $70 average price for a traditional textbook.

“Television is always going to be our primary focus, but we’re incredibly excited about the business potential of the Techbook,” Zaslav said. “Education is an area of solid, sustainable growth.”

Techbook is only targeting K-12 students for now, so it’s just scratching the surface of education’s “business potential.”

Monday, August 20, 2012

Students Produce Ed-Tech E-Text for iPad

Nine graduate students at Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, produced an e-textbook that just might be the starting point for more educational technology, according to this article in eCampus News. The group introduced its free e-textbook for iPads, Using Technology in Education, through the Apple iBookstore last January.

The e-text is full of video and images covering topics ranging from use of social media to advances in assistive technology to e-readers in higher education.

“This movement toward electronic textbooks and tablet computers could revolutionize K-12 and higher education,” said Chris Greer, associate professor of instructional technology at the John H. Lounsbury College of Education at Georgia College and instructor for the students who produced the e-text. “Digital textbooks are inexpensive and can be updated more quickly and easily. Our textbook strives to look at technology and education together.”

Greer added he believes textbooks for iPads will be even more useful once more educators adopt e-readers. That day may be coming, as more than 600 school districts around the country have iPad programs in place, according to Greer, while a recent Student Monitor survey found that six in 10 college students and seven of 10 high school seniors think tablet computers will replace traditional printed textbooks within five years.

Another e-text scheduled to be available for this fall term is Introduction to Sociology from education startup Highlighter and the 20 Million Minds Foundation. This e-book is being described as the “first student-faculty interactive textbook” because it offers social highlighting and commenting features that can be shared.

Highlighter expects the e-text will allow professors to track a student’s progress through its note-taking feature. Plus, the app is HTML5, which makes it compatible for use on all devices.

“I recently wrote that the latest round of textbook-related news was banal at best,” Audrey Watters said in her Inside Higher Education blog. “But the social components (of the Highlighter project), along with the OER materials and the flexibility therein, do offer something a lot more interesting here, I think.”

Friday, August 17, 2012

Can Online Education Replace College?

David Youngberg, an assistant professor of economics at Bethany College, was worried all the talk about massive open online courses (MOOC) might put him on the unemployment line. After all, Udacity founder and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun has been quoted as saying that only 10 institutions of higher education will remain worldwide within 50 years because of the video lectures, online discussion boards, and instruction from some of the top minds in the world his company offers.

So, Youngberg signed up for one of the first courses offered by Udacity to see what the all the fuss was about. After taking the course, he came up with five reasons why MOOCs are not all they are cracked up to be in a commentary piece that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Youngberg outlines the problems with MOOCs as he sees them (easy to cheat; top students can’t shine; employers expect applicants with traditional education; computers can’t grade essays; and cheap classes cheapens the value of education), and explains why he thinks each is an issue. For instance, he suggests many employers look first to hire team players and not people who might be attracted to unconventional degree programs.

One interesting thing about the column is not the ideas Youngberg presents, but the strong reaction to them. In fact, the reason related to earning traditional degrees elicited responses that range from “nonsense” to “plain dangerous.”

Youngberg goes on to admit that there’s much to learn from online education. Perhaps his real point is near the end when he writes, “If we don’t learn from MOOCs, we will disappear.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Education Tech Can't Leave Disabled Students Behind

The Department of Education estimates 11% of new college freshmen will arrive on campus with some sort of disability. That’s become a huge issue as institutions try to keep pace with technological changes while providing accessibility to all its students, whether they have vision or hearing problems to learning and cognitive disabilities.

State and federal legislators have stepped up with laws and regulations to provide equal access, and the industry is making progress. Blackboard claims its products meet industry standards and must gain approval from people with disabilities through partnerships with organizations such as the National Federation for the Blind before they ever reach the market.

But laws often have no teeth, according to Dianne Hengst, director of disability services at the University of Texas at San Antonio in a recent article that appeared at mysanantonio.com. Not only that, Hengst has also found students with disabilities do not always register with her office.

“(People with disabilities) don’t want to be segregated,” said Marti Hathorn, a blind graduate of UTSA and assistive technology supervisor at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind. “We don’t want our own computer lab. I didn’t want to be left out of anything or cut corners. I wasn’t (in school) to get by, I wanted to do better than everyone else.”

Assistive technology could be as simple as curbs with handicap ramps and speech recognition software to more controversial ideas such as cochlear implants for children. For Hathorn, it included a screen magnifier, a closed-circuit television, and a scanner for her textbooks.

“When computer usage first took off, accessibility wasn’t even brought to the table,” she said. “Now it is starting to be a priority and is part of the discussion and more people with disabilities are speaking up.”

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Online Course Services Reaching Milestone Numbers

Coursera announced recently it has registered one million students for its free online courses, while rival Udacity says it has more than 739,000 students signed up for its massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The idea of free online courses is attractive, even though no university credit is earned in many MOOCs. It helps that a number of top-flight universities have signed on with Coursera and Udacity has some of the best-known scholars in the country providing its educational material.

While a million registered students sounds impressive, some details—such as whether a student signed up for a course but didn’t actually follow through on the assignments—are not spelled out. However, such milestone numbers are the type of figures that will make news as the media tries to explain how education is coping in the age of high tech.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Students Ready for More Tech in the Classroom

The latest CDW-G student survey on education technology found just 23% of those polled were satisfied with the way instructors use class time. Those who were satisfied tended to listen to fewer lectures and use technology more.

“I do learn more with a mixed style, where the class is opened up to group discussion,” said Hannah Davis, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was part of a student panel during the Learn Now, Lecture Later: The New College Experience session at the Campus Technology 2012 conference in Boston.

The report surveyed 1,015 students, faculty, and IT staff at the high school and college level last May and June. Technology is employed more in college classrooms than high school, with 74% of college students using digital content, 55% making use of smartphones, and 53% taking advantage of recorded lectures.

“I like having the lecture online, so I can pause it and rewind,” said panelist Mario Solorzano, a student at Arizona State University. He told of an English professor at ASU who uses Skype to connect with students after office hours and of a grad student who created a Facebook study group.

In addition to greater opportunities to use technology in the classroom, students say they would like to see digital formats become standardized and the price of e-books come down.

“I find e-books priced much the same as textbooks and can’t bring myself to buy it for the same price as a hardcover, even though I would find them beneficial,” said Tyler Hughes, a student at the University of Michigan.

There are plenty of other challenges for IT and faculty to work out. Andy Lausch, vice president of higher education at CDW-G and moderator of the student-panel session, pointed to budget constraints, class size, and time for professional development as the biggest obstacles. Another hurdle could be faculty mindset, since the survey also found that 88% of respondents view moving away from traditional lectures as a challenge.

“Students say classroom time is moving in the right direction, but they want a greater mix of learning models, with more hands-on assignments and more virtual learning,” said Lausch. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Aiming K-12 Books at Parental Rental

Instead of trying to persuade K-12 schools or district boards to adopt digital textbooks on a widespread scale, Kno is embarking on a different strategy: marketing e-textbooks to parents one at a time.

The software company just signed up to license textbook content from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to create digital versions of its K-12 books, which Kno will rent to Mom and Dad at $9.99 per year per title, or as Kno CEO Osman Rashid put it, “for the price of a couple of Happy Meals.”

HMH has an estimated 50% of the K-12 textbook market, which means there’s an awful lot of kids out there with at least one HMH title in their backpacks. As Publishers Weekly explained, the digital texts will reproduce the pages of the printed texts, so Junior doesn’t get confused in doing homework. But the e-books will also sport helpful extras, such as 3-D animated demonstrations, flash cards, highlighting, and a digital journal for note-taking.

TechCrunch pointed out the pricing doesn’t exactly add up to a pot of gold for Kno, although for the publisher it’s bonus money on top of the print sales. However, Rashid is banking on the low price to attract more parents to try out the digital books at home. Once they do, he hopes they’ll push for adoption at their children’s schools.

If more youngsters get accustomed to digital books while still in K-12, in a few years that could ratchet up demand for the college-level digital books that Kno already provides through partnerships with higher-education publishers.

Friday, August 10, 2012

In Defense of Publishers and Digital

Brian Kibby, president of McGraw-Hill Education, threw down the gauntlet in a recent essay for Inside Higher Education, asserting that there needs to be a complete shift to digital in higher education, and it needs to be done within the next 36 months. He claims lagging grades and student graduation rates, along with graduates not leaving schools with the skills employers need, as the reasons the digital shift is so important.

The problem with this challenge is those paying for the course materials aren’t buying it, according to Daniel Luzer, web editor of the Washington Monthly.

“That’s because students don’t actually like the digital model,” Luzer wrote. “While electronic might work well enough for some forms of reading: novels (particularly the trash sort where you don’t want people to see what you’re reading on the subway or whatever) and magazine articles, it’s not actually all that good for studying, where underlining and marking up the text is part of what enables people to learn. It’s just hard to study using anything other than print.”

He then suggests the possibility of an ulterior motive to Kibby’s challenge.

“What students really want are used or rental textbooks,” Luzer said. “Textbook rentals are very popular on college campuses. But then, McGraw-Hill doesn’t make any money off textbook rentals or used books.”

Making publishers out to be the bad guys may be good reading on a blog, but Luzer seems to fail to understand where digital course materials and education are headed, which is part of Kibby's point. Digital course materials of the future will be not be the “PDF-equivalent” that they are today, and it will not be about “reading” text like we may have in the pre- and early-digital dark ages.

While Kibby’s forecast may be aggressively optimistic, the future of course materials will be more digital, and more value-adding in terms of contributing to student success. What will replace textbooks are products that are interactive, incorporate assessments, and which are tied to improving learning outcomes. Most major publishers, like McGraw, are making substantive investments in higher education gaming solutions, assessment of content mastery, re-envisioned LMS and learning environments, adaptive learning materials, and a range of other digital products that we would hardly recognize as “textbooks.”

Regarding the ulterior motive ascribed to Kibby’s challenge, publishers like McGraw are publicly traded commercial enterprises, and thus have a distinct incentive to maximize financial returns. If current business practices (e.g., used and rental) do not allow them to generate revenue off of products they originally created, then we should expect they will explore and promote products and business models that do.

What students want is value at a reasonable price. That does not necessarily mean “used or rental” textbooks. They are just the perceived best option at the current time.

Our mission should be to improve educational affordability and student success. We should learn to stop bashing the publishers like an autoimmune response to change.

Do I like every publisher business practice?  No.  Are course material prices too high (generally speaking)?  Yes.  Are arguments like this productive or lead to better solutions?  Not likely.

We would be much better served by finding ways to be part of the new technologies and delivery models, and helping find ways to improve them, rather than giving the long-term suppliers and partners for our core product reasons to work against and around us. Let us take some accountability and help create options that address both affordability and student success, recognizing that many of these options will be substantively digital in the possibly not-to-distant future.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Could Watermark Provide DRM Solution?

Publishers can’t be blamed for trying to safeguard their assets with digital rights management protection on their e-titles, particularly against large-scale file sharing.

The problem is DRM does not really deter anyone determined to share files, which led Dana Robinson, a adjunct professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law and partner with Techlaw LLP, to propose a solution in an article for Digital Book World. His solution would be to create e-books with a watermark place throughout the book.

The e-book’s buyer would have to provide personal information for the watermark by agreeing to terms and conditions that would prohibit the resale or distribution of the title.

“The point of making a watermark that shows the user’s personal information is to create a disincentive for the user to pass the book along to unknown third parties, deputizing the user to act as a gatekeeper, protecting the book from wrongful distribution,” Robinson wrote, adding that removing the watermark could then be a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Robinson points out that his watermark solution would not prevent people from sharing their book with family or close friends, but that they’ve always done that with printed books. His watermark is aimed at individuals trying to gain financially from someone else’s work.

“What e-book publishers need is a way to distribute e-books with as little hassle as possible, while ensuring that the publisher can sue pirates and stop e-book sales, rental, and large-scale sharing,” he said.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Change is coming to E-Book Market

The Department of Justice recently filed a motion asking that its settlement with Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster in its e-book pricing lawsuit be approved in federal court. No surprise there.

If accepted, sometime around the middle of September, retailers will be able to set their own prices for e-books, at least from the three publishers in the settlement.  The settlement allows the agency-pricing model that came under DOJ scrutiny to remain, but the provisions of the settlement make anything resembling the current agency model highly unlikely.

While the settlement allows retailers to set the sales prices, publishers can prohibit discounts on their books. That provision comes into play when the total sales of a year exceed the margin the retailer has earned, according to an analysis of the agreement in The Shatzkin Files.

However, the article also points out how easily that discount prohibition may be sidestepped. For instance, a retailer such as Amazon may choose to cut e-book prices way below its costs during a specific time frame, such as the upcoming holiday season, figuring to make up the margin over the next nine months. In the meantime, other publishers who may still be clinging to the agency-pricing model may have to lower its prices just to stay competitive.

Which is exactly what many in the bookselling industry feared all along.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cengage Places Bid to Buy McGraw-Hill Education

Last month, Standard & Poor’s reported that Cengage Learning’s cash flow was “less than adequate” to cover its needs over the next 12 to 18 months. Last week, reports surfaced that Cengage made a bid to purchase McGraw-Hill Education (MHE). So what gives?

As it turns out, buying MHE could be a way for Cengage to increase its revenue, according to the report. The S&P report about Cengage’s cash flow was based on an assumption that future refinancing costs would be too high, with the Reuters article adding that “may be driving Cengage and its private equity owners to consider acquisitions that would boost its cash flow.”

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment on what McGraw-Hill might or might not do with respect to a sale or spin-off of its education business,” said Cengage CEO Ron Dunn in the Reuters story. “With regards to Cengage Learning, we continue to generate strong cash flows from operations and we are very confident that we can service our debt while continuing to fund our business at appropriate levels as we lead the migration to digital solutions in all our markets.”

Cengage isn’t alone in its interest in MHE. Reuters reports that Bain Capital, Thomas H. Lee Partners, and Apollo Global Management have also placed bids for the firm that could be valued at around $3 billion, according to The Bookseller. Reuters also reports Cengage is looking to make a bid for EmbanetCompass, an online education services company.

McGraw-Hill decided last September to split into two publicly traded companies by the end of 2012 after calls from minority shareholders to restructure the business. MHE earned $2.3 billion in revenues and had an operating income of $260 million last year. Digital-related solutions accounted for more than 20% of its 2011 revenue

As in any business venture, there are risks for Cengage, particularly if its cash flow declines. Consolidating that much debt into one company could also be a concern for the industry, but the potential for reduced store-channel leverage and more direct-to-customer and institutional sales models are also long-term concerns stemming from more consolidated content.

Or the bid could provide Cengage with some breathing room.

Monday, August 6, 2012

New Study Shows Readers' Format Preferences Vary

The percentage of consumers are buying titles in digital formats has fallen, but more people are also saying they have no preference when it comes to the format of a book, according to the latest Book Industry Study Group e-book reading survey.

Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading reports the portion of consumers who “exclusively or mostly” buy e-books fell from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% just nine months later. At the same time, the percentage of respondents who either had no preference between e-book or print formats, or who bought some of both, went up from 25% to 34%, signaling that consumers have become more comfortable with a variety of reading formats.

The study found that ownership of the Amazon Kindle Fire has increased from 7% to 20% of respondents from December 2011 to June 2011, and that the use of multifunctional tables as a primary reading device is growing at about the same pace that the preference for dedicated e-readers has dropped. Preference for the Kindle as a primary reading device fell from 48% in August 2011 to 35% in May 2012, while black-and-white and color versions of the Nook e-reader slipped from 17% to 13% over the same period.

The Apple iPad remained steady in the ownership survey at 17% from August 2011 to May 2012, but now trails the Kindle Fire in the ownership category. The number of respondents who use the iPad as an e-reader also dipped from 10% to 9%.

While the iPad may have moved into second place in the BISG consumer survey, Student Monitor found that 66% of respondents to its survey of 1,200 college students say that the iPad was the “in” device on campus, even though fewer than 12% actually own one. At the same time, the Student Monitor research showed that 88% of students own a laptop computer, 19% have desktops, and just 10% say they own a tablet.

The research also found students’ preference in course material formats may be shifting. Printed textbooks continue to dominate sales, but students saying they “prefer traditional textbooks” has declined from 50% two years ago to 39% in the most recent Student Monitor report.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Open-Access Deal a First for Canada Campuses

Here and there across the U.S., colleges and universities are trying out open-access course materials, often cautiously as part of structured pilots. Now Canadian schools are starting to join them. Recently the University of Windsor in Ontario became the first to sign a licensing agreement for open digital materials for a fall course in management information systems.

In its press announcement of the deal, the school touted the cost savings to students. The local paper, the Windsor Star, also beat the same drum, starting off its report, “There’s a lot to hate about traditional textbooks…”

Students will pay $20 for e-books and study aids that can be downloaded to a computer, laptop, smartphone, e-reader, or tablet. The materials are being provided through Flat World Knowledge. About 200 students are expected to take part in this initial pilot.

If that goes well, the university plans to add more courses for the second term and then expand depending on how quickly faculty are willing to adopt Flat World titles. There may be somewhat more pressure on them to do so than at other institutions, given that Windsor’s tagline is “Thinking forward.”

The University of Windsor Bookstore already sells e-books and furnishes online assistance with e-reader apps as part of an array of textbook services that includes rentals, used books, and an RSS feed to provide textbook updates. The store is also one of a handful of campus stores offering print-on-demand through an in-store Espresso book-printing machine.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

University of Minnesota Creates E-Book in 10 Weeks

The University of Minnesota launched its online open-text catalog at the end of April in an effort to give students access to textbooks online for free, or printed for a small fee. Now, university faculty and staff have created a 317-page e-book in 10 weeks.

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012 is a compilation of contributions from 57 faculty members, 51 staffers, 17 graduate students, and five undergrads, all of whom volunteered their work so there would be no cost to producing the title, according to Ann Hill Duin, professor of writing studies at the Twin Cities campus.

The book was released July 9 to the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, which serves the online open-access repository. The conservancy also provided a permanent web address for the book.

“We really want to maintain access just like we do with our print,” said Lisa Johnston, research services librarian at the Twin Cities campus and co-director of the conservancy. She contributed to a chapter on the conservancy’s role in curating digital research. “We are a service that makes information available to the public via the web.”

The book focuses on “ideas for transforming teaching methods, solutions to specific classroom problems, examples of campus leaders providing direction and support for these efforts, and ways the university is spreading innovation off campus,” according to a report in Inside Higher Education.

“The e-book is far greater than the sum of the parts,” said Duin. “It’s connecting people with the innovative, imaginative, creative, collaborative dynamic work under way.”

The book is already attracting a following. Abram Anders, assistant professor of business communications at UM-Duluth’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics, reports more than 4,000 views so far of the chapter he wrote about his work with Google Apps script.

“I can see that we’re getting some people coming to our site from the press release that the school put out, some people coming from e-mail links, some people coming from Facebook,” he said, adding that people are also finding the site through Twitter posts.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

New Study Shows Potential of Online Learning

A new report found that college students using an interactive learning online (ILO) system with one hour of classroom instruction each week scored the same in standardized tests as students taking the same course through traditional classroom methods. Results from the study may lessen concern about students’ learning results when taking online courses.

“This method appears to have potential,” says Matthew M. Chingos, a senior research consultant for Ithaka S+R.  “I view this research as a proof of concept that at least one instance of a high-quality online course can produce equivalent outcomes, and hopefully future versions that are higher quality will do even better.”

In fact, students in the hybrid course scored slightly higher and devoted 25% less time to coursework, according to the report Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials. However, students also reported enjoying the hybrid course less than students taking the traditional class.

Chingos says he believes the ILO course lacked features students expected from an online course, which led to the lower score. He also speculated that better features would produce better results.

“If you could imagine a future version of a course like this, taking advantage of more addictive, interactive, exciting features, getting students even more involved in it, the hope is that in the long run, this won’t just produce the same outcomes in less time for less money, but will actually improve the quality of the educational experience,” he says.