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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.

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