A crack in the dam: Utah school buys 147 Kindles

Well it’s taken less than a year from the Kindle’s introduction for it to find its way into the schools. John McCain would be at home here, because these folks are true mavericks. The board voted last month to approve an expenditure of over $50,000 to purchase 147 Kindles for use in their schools, (albeit not by students):


The school text market for Kindle is so far small to nonexistent, but Granite officials foresee the day when publishing companies embrace the medium because of simple market forces. Not only would use of the device in schools cut down on paper costs, but it would also cut down on space and energy needed to store books and move them from school to school. Rather than wait months for updated texts, they could instead be downloaded soon after revisions. The days when students strained their developing backs with a pack full of books would be over.

All that’s still to come. For now, Johnson said, the district’s Kindles will be put into the hands of librarians, assistant librarians and technology specialists at its elementary, middle and high schools. Once they’re versed in the ways of using Kindle to promote reading and literacy, what Johnson calls “the third wave” of placing the devices in classrooms can’t be far behind. The opportunity to save education dollars and engage students with technology they can relate to is too great to pass up, he believes.

It’s a small step, but (to borrow a phrase) a giant leap, since it demonstrates that the education market holds real potential as a consumer of this kind of technology, and the textbook publishers would be wise to embrace it. Amazon would be more than happy to help.

Kindles in the Classroom: The Forecast for Education is “Cloudy”

Cloud computing is currently the hot trend in geek- world, if my RSS feeds from Mashable, Ars Technica and Technorati are any indication. The concept of being able to access all your information from anywhere, anytime using any device has a certain appeal, if you can get over the privacy concerns. Much digital ink has been spilled speculating on the benefits and risks of cloud computing, and there’s no need to rehash all that here.  However, one domain where it has the potential to fulfill that trite prediction, “This changes everything!” is in  the field of education. Many critics of the public school system have argued that it is fraught with so many antiquated practices and restrictive union rules that any effort to reform our educational system is doomed to failure. But even in the scorched aftermath of a forest fire, the seeds of a new generation of flora are covertly taking root, and one simply needs to nurture them and be patient while a new ecosystem emerges.

An example of how the Kindle (or another ebook reader) will play an integral role in shaping the future of education appears in an interview with a high school world history teacher conducted by Joe Wikert on his Kindleville blog. The teacher, Chris Edwards, makes some bold and, in my opinion, insightful predictions about the future of learning, as well as the demise of the textbook as we know it:

Practically speaking, there is no way that any district 10 years from now is going to be able to resist buying a $200 Kindle for their students at the beginning of their 7th grade year and then simply buying textbook updates as the student progresses. The money saved and hassle avoided will be tremendous.

I look at the Kindle as a kind of transitional species. Certainly textbook downloading is going to be an important feature for the Kindle, but I actually don’t think that it will be necessary to buy textbooks with them. I really think that humanity is quickly moving toward compiling a kind of Comprehensive Human Memory (CHM) that will exist in binary code form and will, metaphorically, just kind of float above us. This is kind of the case now. We’re simply realizing how to access it. It is very likely that in 20 years we will all be carrying blue-tooth type devices that will access this CHM and bring us whatever facts we need on command.

If I had a class set of Kindles with Internet access I would not, strictly speaking, need a textbook. I could simply access sites that have the historical information I’m looking for and use my state standards as a road map. Textbook companies will, of course, evolve with this. If they are going to compete they are going to have to figure out how to make Kindle books accessible and cheap.

What Mr. Edwards is describing when he talks about “Comprehensive Human Memory” is cloud computing in education: all knowledge is floating out in the ether and it can be accessed on demand, by any device. The device may not be a Kindle, however, given Amazon’s “walled garden” model, which favors content from the Amazon bookstore. The Kindle was developed as a delivery mechanism for Amazon’s content, and for that it achieves its objective. It was not, however, designed to seamlessly access and display a whole array of material that might be considered an integral part of a student’s learning: textbooks (either open source or proprietary), PDFs, Poweprpoints, etc. Two years from now there will likely be a handful of such devices, and while they may not have the Kindle’s national wireless coverage, as more and more campuses and schools offer wi-fi, that may become less of an issue in the education space.

What will almost certainly be widely available will be open source textbooks as start-ups like CK12, Connexions, and Flatworld Knowledge begin to proliferate.  This new, disruptive technology, will at last tilt the economics of  education sharply in favor of the student. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars per year on books with a limited shelf life, they (or the school system) will be able to simply purchase an e-book reader (for less than $200) and put all their semester’s required reading material on it for the price of one college textbook today. Truly a cloudy, but bright, future for today’s students.

NY Times says textbook publishers are like drug companies: (Prozac with your Proust?)

Another article in the continuing odyssey of the nefarious publishing industry appears in today’s New York Times. It contains the usual litany of egregious behavior by the textbook oligarchy: double-digit price increases, crippled digital versions padded with empty caloric content, under-the table-kickbacks to faculty members, etc. But it also charges that the publishers are similar to drug companies in that they both benefit from the so-called “moral hazard” problem, as explained by Cal Tech economist and open source microeconomics textbook author R. Preston McAfee:

that is, the doctor who prescribes medication and the professor who requires a textbook don’t have to bear the cost and thus usually don’t think twice about it. “The person who pays for the book, the parent or the student, doesn’t choose it,” he said. “There is this sort of creep. It’s always O.K. to add $5.”

Hmm… Maybe MacMillan could throw in a free prescription for a semester’s supply of Paxil. Having been back on campus for a few weeks now and having to deal with higher tuition and outrageous textbook prices, the class of 2012 is coming to the painful realization that they can barely afford their case of Heineken, their daily Starbucks double iced frappacino, and their music downloads (oh, I forgot – they get that last one for free.)

Professor McAfee adds one more comment:

“This market is not working very well — except for the shareholders in the textbook publishers,” he said. “We have lots of knowledge, but we are not getting it out.”

This is a true but incomplete statement, at least as quoted in the article. It is accurate to point to the increasing returns to shareholders, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to track this data as the trend towards consolidation and private equity in the publishing field removes the need for public disclosure:

There is no doubt that major textbook publishers are big business. The college textbook market represents between $5 billion and $6 billion and the the last 18 months have seen the sale of two major publishers (Houghton Mifflin College and Thomson Learning) for $750 million and $7.75 billion respectively. The overall consolidation of the college textbook market has left four primary players (listed in order of size and market share): Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, and Wiley.

There is little doubt that the M&A activity has resulted in the remaining publishers adding staggering amounts of debt to their balance sheets. A consequence of this new economic reality is a shift in attention from textbooks to those other books that the company produces: the ones that deal with assets, liabilities and net income. Accountants tend to focus on different assets than editorial directors do.

But another party is apparently complicit in this cozy arrangement of uncontrolled textbook price increases, according to a 2006 study by Dr. James Koch called

An Economic Analysis of Textbook Pricing and Textbook Markets.

Yet another distinctive characteristic of textbook markets is that nearly
every institution of higher education has a financial stake in higher
textbook prices.  With a few exceptions, noted below, institutions of
higher education either own and operate their own bookstores, or they
contract that responsibility to an external vendor such as Follett or Barnes
and Noble, in which case they usually receive a lump-sum payment plus a
percentage of dollar value of sales at contracted on-campus stores.

What this market structure leads to is ever increasing pressure on the producers to raise prices, which works well for as long as there are few supply alternatives for the consumers (students). As thought leaders such as Preston McAfee, enabled by disruptive innovators like Lulu and Flatworld Knowledge, (which I have blogged about frequently this year) begin to offer a viable alternative to the two extremes currently faced by most students – price gouging or illegal file sharing sites – the publishing cartel may soon find itself cozying up to the drug makers, if only to get their own supply of Prozac.

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling: Schoolkids Get Free E-Readers

The country that gave the world U2, Guiness beer, and the shamrock also seems to be on the cutting edge of educational technology, according to a story in Thursday’s Irish Times:

A GROUP of 18 secondary school pupils yesterday became the first students worldwide to replace their academic books with electronic devices. The first year students of Caritas College girls’ school in Ballyfermot, Dublin, each received an electronic book, pre-loaded with the required textbooks, as well as 50 classic novels including Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist . The use of the electronic devices will mean a dramatic reduction in the weight of the pupils schoolbags, replacing more than 6kg (13.2lbs) of textbooks, workbooks, an English dictionary and a novel with a 400g (0.9lbs) e-book.  In addition, the students will no longer need copybooks to take notes, as they can write and doodle on the electronic pages, similar to a regular copybook.

The pilot program has apparently been launched by Dublin based educational publishers Gill & Macmillan. Their director of sales is quoted as saying: “Although we believe that the widespread adoption of e-readers is some time off, this project allows us to determine how well they work in the classroom, how the pupils interact with them and to examine their potential.”

The device being used for the pilot program is the Iliad, by iRex Technologies. It list for $599 U.S. and is generally regarded as the Mercedes of e-book readers. In addition to handling e-books (including PDFs), this device incorporates Wacom’s pen writing technology, allowing the user to write directly on the screen with a stylus. The mind boggles when imagining the scenario in which a student can carry all her books and notes in a 15 oz package that fits in her purse.

No doubt some critics will say that at this price, why not buy them all laptops, but you’d be hard pressed to find a laptop with handwriting recognition and touch screen technology incoroporated for $600. Besides, the electronic paper display is unbeatable for reading long passages of text. The iliad comes with built in wi-fi for downloading content wirelessly, as well as an optional ethernet hook-up, in contrast to the built in “Whispernet” feature of Amazon’s Kindle, which is based on Sprint’s high-speed mobile phone network.

This is a bold step for a publisher to take, assuming they are underwriting the full cost of the program. If this assumption is correct, this begs the question, (or several questions): Does Gill & Macmillan plan to migrate all its textbooks to an electronic medium? How is their economic model different from that of North American textbook publishers, who so far have shown little interest in adapting their content to an electronic format? And finally, could they please open a U.S. branch?

We will be following the progress of this experiment in digital publishing closely over the coming months. Stay tuned.

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PIRG claims e-textbooks are due for “Course Correction”

In a stinging critique of its recent foray into the field of digital textbooks, the publishing industry was taken to task in a report released this week  by the Student Public Interest Research Group. The study, entitled, “Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks Are Off Track, and How to Set Them Straight”, outlines the findings of a survey conducted on two different college campuses last spring, and presents the following findings:

1. Digital textbooks must meet three criteria – affordable, printable and accessible:

In order to be a solution to high costs, digital textbooks must cost less than traditional books. That means digital textbooks must be priced lower than the net cost of buying a textbook – the purchase price minus the amount the student can expect to receive for selling it back to the bookstore.

2. Digital textbooks done wrong: e-textbooks fail to meet the criteria:

The first type of digital text we reviewed was e-textbooks, the digital book format offered by the major publishers through CourseSmart.  We found that they fall short on each of the three criteria we found digital textbooks must meet.

E-textbooks are too expensive
* The e-textbooks we surveyed cost on average exactly the same as a new hard copy of the same title bought and sold back to the bookstore.
* The e-textbooks we surveyed cost on average 39% more than a used hard copy of the same title bought and sold back online.

Printing is costly and difficult
* Printing was limited to 10 pages per session for each of the e-textbooks we surveyed.
* Buying and printing half of an e-textbook was three times the cost of buying a used hard copy and selling it back to the bookstore, for the books we surveyed.

E-textbooks are difficult to access
* Students have to choose between using the book online or using it offline – they cannot do both.
* Most (75%) of the e-textbooks we surveyed expired after 180 days, so students do not have the option to access their books in the future.

3. Digital textbooks done right: open textbooks meet all of the criteria

Open textbooks are textbooks distributed free digitally under an open license.  The key feature of an open license is that it permits users to make copies of the textbook and translate it into different formats.  So, open textbooks start as digital textbooks but can be printed in a variety of formats. We found that open textbooks accomplish what e-textbooks do not: low prices, printing options and accessibility.

Open textbooks are affordable. Open textbooks are free digitally, and students can purchase other formats at a low cost.

Open textbooks are easy and inexpensive to print. Students can print digital textbooks anytime, anywhere and in a variety of formats.  They can print individual pages at home, order a print-on-demand bound copy, or anything in between.

Open textbooks are accessible. Students can access open textbooks anytime, from any computer, without the book expiring.

The authors of the study urge faculty and institutions to do everything they can to encourage adoption of open textbooks:

For faculty, this means giving preference to open textbooks whenever pedagogically appropriate.  For institutions, this means providing incentives to faculty authors and pooling resources to develop a viable infrastructure to support open textbooks.

This report seems to be getting noticed, as it’s been quoted by most of the major tech and publishing blogs. If nothing else, it will most likely lead to a spike in hits on a couple of sites: Coursesmart (which PIRG ranks slightly below the IRS in its contribution to society), and on Flatworld Knowledge, which receives high praise for its approach to open textbooks. (Another site Connexions, offers open source educational content as well.) There will also quite possibly be a lot more traffic to file sharing sites like Textbook Torrents, which didn’t let pesky conventions such as copyright laws interfere with its users’ access to every textbook that has been scanned and uploaded by disgruntled students. (Although the site is currently not accepting any more registrations, which suggests that their legal bills may be exceeding their server costs.)

As the report indicates, the textbook publishing industry is overdue for change. But for some insight into some factors that might keep the business from changing as quickly as the technology is, it’s worth reading a column posted by a writer with impressive credentials, as an author, college professor, and a publishing executive. His post is called Why the Kindle Won’t Have a Dramatic Impact on College Course Materials for at least Five Years and although it focuses largely on the barriers to the adoption of the Kindle in the college market, it provides a cogent and laconic account of the economics of the textbook publishing industry. Among his observations:

  • Within this context, e-books are budgeted as a small percentage of the overall budget. From the textbook publisher’s perspective the development costs are identical whether the content is being flowed into a print textbook or an e-book. This is because textbook publishers make most of their revenue of print textbooks and, consequently, most of the content development strategy is formulated around those print textbooks. E-books are simply “add-ons” or extra products that can be viewed as a by product of the core print development process.
  • Within the current content development workflow for textbook publishers, the plant investment remains the same regardless of whether the product is a print textbook or an e-book. And, since publishers sell far more print textbooks than e-books, there is no incentive to change production workflows to favor the creation of minimized or lower-cost e-books from which print textbooks could be created. This means that publishing e-books, without significant changes to current design and production workflow, does not reduce the publishers’ costs significantly. This is important because it means all current e-book solutions for textbook publishers take into consideration the print book production process and derives cost efficiencies from that process. There are neither sales incentive or cost efficiencies in the current workflow that would cause publishers to get excited about the Kindle.

One could surmise that the same might be said for ebooks in general, not only Kindle versions. Until the design and workflow process undergoes a radical transformation, thus reducing the cost curve by an order of magnitude, traditional publishers will not be in a position to offer their content in an open (free or nearly so) model. This is a clear symptom of an industry about to undergo a stage of disintermediation, which is usually accompanied by major sell-offs of assets, restructuring and layoffs of thousands of managers and editors. It may take a decade or so, but eventually the textbook industry may consist of hundreds of small, specialized content producers, and a handful of POD providers. Instead of going to Barnes & Noble to buy their textbooks, the freshmen of 2015 may be stopping by Kinko’s.

E-books in education: One publisher’s perspective

The Association of Educational Publishers sponsors a blog called: Publishing for the Digital Future, which is a collection of essays, articles and opinion pieces that analyze the impact of the digital age on the field of educational publishing. In a recent post, the CEO of Evan Moor Educational Publishers offers up a number of questions that are often asked by publishers thinking about moving into the digital realm. His answers to these questions provide some valuable insight into the thought process of publishing executives. The writer, Bill Evans, takes a decidedly optimistic view of the future of digital publishing, and its effect on the industry. Here are some excerpts  of the questions and answers he addresses:

1. How secure is the e-book format? How can I be sure that my intellectual property isn’t going to be e-mailed to 150 of my customer’s closest friends?

Before answering this question, we first have to ask: How safe is a paper and ink book? The truth is that with better and better scanning techniques and better and better character recognition, any paper and ink book can be made into a digital book in a matter of minutes. Whether it’s a paper and ink book or a digital book, publishers will have to be vigilant about protecting their copyrights.

2. Will digital books cut into my other sales?

That has certainly not been our experience at Evan-Moor. It has been our experience that it actually grows the sales of a book. We believe this is because we are serving a different customer–a customer who has not previously been served. However, if the format did replace the sales of a paper and ink book, it would still mean greater profits for your company. Without any costs of goods sold or the costs of incoming and outgoing shipping, more money drops to the bottom line.

3. How should I price an e-book?

I’ve always taken the position that I’m not selling paper and ink. Rather, I’m selling content. The publisher may be saving on the cost of goods sold, but the customer is also saving the cost of shipping. In addition, the customer gets immediate delivery of the product. At Evan-Moor an e-book and a paper and ink book cost the same.

6. What’s the future of the digital book?

Right now, most publishers (including Evan-Moor) are simply taking the production files we have for our books and transforming them into PDFs for distribution. To a certain extent this is a lot like putting radio shows on television. It really doesn’t take advantage of all the possibilities of this new electronic medium. There are lots of ways we could think about enhancing our e-books, including:

  • Providing a clickable table of contents to immediately get to the part of the book that you want to go to;
  • Giving the ability to annotate the pages with the teacher’s notes;
  • Allowing the teacher to customize the content for his/her class;
  • Adding elements to an activity or deleting them or perhaps even changing the spelling for territories outside the United States;
  • Selling chapters or even a few pages of a book rather than the entire book;
  • Selling compilations and collections of e-books in a bundle; and
  • Making the book whiteboard friendly so that the book is truly interactive. This might also include providing worksheets that now become self-correcting in the digital context.

8. What are the benefits to the ultimate consumer?

There are many reasons that teachers are going to want to buy supplemental materials in this manner:

  • Get the book immediately;
  • Do electronic word searching within the document;
  • Store the book so it doesn’t get lost, and even back it up;
  • Print exactly what you need when you need it;
  • Avoid shipping costs;
  • The teacher may have the ability to customize content for his or her individual classroom; and
  • Use the book on a whiteboard, as well as printing it out.

Now you might be a bit confused if you read the answer to Q 3 (“At Evan-Moor an e-book and a paper and ink book cost the same”) and attempted to reconcile it with the rest of the piece. This statement might be paraphrased as “Let’s not change our pricing one iota, despite taking 30-40% out of our cost base and not adding any value to the content”. It is symptomatic of the antediluvian philosophy of the publishing industry. This assertion is all the more ironic in view of the other promises of e-books that the writer refers to. If they took the extra step and converted to a reflowable text standard such as e-pub, then one might see the justification for charging the same price, because of the value added to the digital content. Clickable ToC, highlighting and annotating text, electronic word searching – now those are features that changing the nature of the book (and education) as we know it.  Simply converting files to PDF misses out on the ability to deliver on the prediction he makes in his conclusion:

E-books and digital content are not just a new way of distribution–this is a whole new way to think about educational publishing.

It may be a new way to think about it but they’re stuck doing things the old way.

Blood, Guts and Books: WSJ says boys prefer ghoulish, not girlish, lit

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting Page One article about the lengths publishers are going to in order to interest pre-teen boys in reading. Citing an academic study that:

tracked boys’ reading habits for five years ending in 2005 and found that schools failed to meet their “motivational needs.” Teachers assigned novels about relationships, such as marriage, that appealed to girls but bored boys. His survey of academic research found boys more likely to read nonfiction, especially about sports and other activities they enjoy, as well as funny, edgy fiction. Boys’ literary depth is an abiding concern in educational circles. Boys have persistently lagged behind girls in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an influential federal test for gauging achievement. The gap widens by the time they reach 12th grade.

So to meet this challenge, publishers have started a genre that might be called “Gore for Guys”, with titles such as “Vlad the Impaler”, “Help! What’s Eating My Flesh?” and “Sir Fartsalot”. The article goes on to say that last year, U.S. publishers released 261 new works of juvenile fiction aimed at boys, more than twice the number put out in 2003, according to Bowker’s Books in Print database. There were 20 nonfiction entries for boys, compared with just four in 2003.

This trend is a positive devlopment. It’s disturbing to learn that boys begin to lag girls in reading ability around the age of ten, and the gap continues to widen into adulthood. Anything that generates interest in a subject usually leads a young person to become absorbed (even obsessed) with that topic. So if a movie about Dracula sparks an interest in all things ghoulish then that may well lead to greater consumption of the printed word.

Another site serves the needs of boys searching for books that would interest them. Called GuysRead, it was created by children’s author Jon Scieszka as a web-based literacy program to get boys interested in reading. It could be a great social networking site for teens to post and share reviews of books they like, but at this point it appears to contain a list of books that kids might find interesting, with a link to Amazon if you want to buy the book. (A random check of a few of the books listed resulted in further links to third party sellers, as Amazon did not seem to stock them. And while the books cited in the WSJ article were all available on Amazon, none were offered in the Kindle format. Maybe they’re too graphics intensive to present well as an e-book.)