In the past few years, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession, many commentators have noticed a trend all across the economy: consumers have been eschewing the idea of owning things in favor of renting them. This so-called rental economy can be seen in a host of areas, from home rental instead of ownership to car-sharing services like ZipCar to entertainment options like Netflix and Spotify.

Even in the education industry, particularly educational materials, this trend has become evident. Chegg was one of the first companies to seize on the idea of textbook rentals, and now they’ve been joined by players such as Cengage and Amazon.com.

The demand for rental options from consumers has been clear. In many areas, lots of people clearly prefer renting access rather than paying to own it outright. The reason may differ depending on whether the item is a house or a movie, but there is no denying the impetus. I myself am a prime exhibit, at least in some areas of my life: I happily subscribe to Netflix and Spotify, having decided that I don’t much care (except on occasion) to own movies or music outright. Even in the case of books—and my partner and I own a gazillion books—I’ve started doing all my reading on my iPad via the Kindle app. Now it may appear that I am “purchasing” these books on my Kindle, but I know better: Amazon could take them away at any time. This doesn’t overly concern me.

What about price? I may well spend more money on movies, music, and books now than I used to in The Olde Days. However, I am happy with the shift. I don’t need or want to own more stuff, and the flexibility and convenience offered by those various services is worth the money, at least to me, and apparently to a lot of other people, too.

My Company’s Rental Service

As it happens, I am the owner of a rental service: Milestone Documents, a product for history classrooms that is part textbook, part primary source reader, and part LMS (learning management system). When we launched the service a couple of years ago, there was never any question of offering it via sale as opposed to rental. It is so rich with content, with instructor customization baked so deeply into the design, that it could exist only in the digital realm. In this scenario, a subscription/rental offering was the logical choice. At the same time, one of my motivating factors was the high cost of traditional textbooks, which I thought had grown outrageous. We set our price at $19.95/student/semester, which we thought was eminently fair and a big improvement over existing history course materials.

How do the students using our site feel about this pricing? In fact, they seem quite happy, presumably because they compare it with their other (generally more expensive) textbooks. One of the professors who assigns our site said that on the first day of class last fall, when she told her students that they would use a digital service costing $20 instead of a normal “textbook,” they broke into applause. Whether this is because they hate their textbooks in general, their size/weight, or just their price, I’m not sure. What about the fact that they lose their access to our site after the semester ends? Not one student has complained.

In the realm of educational materials, as in so many other areas, the shift toward rental has happened in concert with—and in some cases has depended on—the shift to digital. Part of the transformation is price: rental is succeeding with college students because it offers a lower price. We are now seeing universities attempting to support this shift. Witness the Cal State University system’s “Rent Digital” program, which we are delighted to be joining this fall. CSU has set up a system in which its students agree to rent their course materials in digital form instead of purchasing them outright, and for a much lower price. (Participating publishers must price the digital versions at least 60% lower than the corresponding print version.)

Benefit or Bondage?

While I think the advent of the rental economy in educational materials is extremely positive, not everyone agrees. In a post at OpenContent.org, David Wiley argues that the next-generation digital textbook offerings (specifically, “adaptive learning services”) are in fact a naked attempt by educational publishers to push back against the downward pressure on prices and, in addition, to exert “complete and perfect control over you and the use of their content.”

David is a pioneer in the field of open educational resources (OER). Among other endeavors, he worked closely with and for Flat World Knowledge, which rocked the industry with its free and open textbooks before abandoning that model last year. He is a respected and passionate advocate for OER, and in his post he makes a valid point about textbook publishers hoping to forestall lower prices by switching to a model that bundles content and services. I think he’s right about that.

However, I don’t agree with his view on the driving force of the rental economy—both in the larger world and in education in particular—and the motivations that he ascribes to educational publishers. In my opinion, the shift toward a rental economy has been driven by consumers, not by corporations “engaged in an active campaign to undermine the idea of ownership of private property.” In sector after sector, many consumers have happily traded this idea for the benefits they see in the idea of renting instead. And in education, our informal surveys of students at least have shown that very few of them care a whit about owning their textbooks. (Otherwise, the used-textbook market would never have flourished.) They want access when they need it, and they want to pay a lot less.

As for the motivations of educational publishers, again I should reiterate that David writes specifically about “adaptive learning services,” the newfangled technology solutions being developed mainly by tech startups as well as the giant LMS and textbook companies. And no doubt it’s those latter behemoths, not niche players like us, that David has in mind when he talks about the drive to control all content, take away rights of students and institutions, and lock in high prices. Although I am no fan of these large companies—and, in fact, am competing against them in offering what I think is a better service at a lower price—even I don’t think they’re quite as craven and cynical as all that. Granted, I may be naive. It wouldn’t be the first time.

A Diverse Ecosystem

Still, I am optimistic about those motivations and about the industry in general because of the diversity of organizations that are active within it. There are the big established conglomerates, but there are also tech startups, bootstrapped mom-and-pops (like us), and foundations and nonprofits (some with very substantial resources), not to mention heavyweights like Google and Amazon. I am hardly the type to wax poetic about the virtues of “the free market,” but I see a very dynamic sector with forces that can be and are focused on building better learning solutions. I use that phrase without ironic quote marks, because I don’t think it’s a hollow promise.

We can already see the effects of this turbulent market sector with the downward pressure on textbook prices, a fact that David himself has helped to bring about. I think the same pressure can and will be seen in other aspects of the new learning systems. Let’s take the issue of student highlights and notes. David is not the only person to sound the alarm about students not retaining ownership of the highlights and notes they create in these digital platforms; Audrey Watters has repeatedly warned about this same problem. I agree with both of them. We launched our own native highlighting and note-taking option only a few months ago. We do already let students print out all such content, but we need to do more to make it easier for the student to save and export this content when the semester is over—or even a couple of years later, if need be. Those enhancements will be coming on our service by the fall. Will the bigger companies follow suit? My guess is that they will over time, although this will depend on the amount of faculty and student pressure that is placed on them about this issue.

My friend Jonathan Rees is always quick to champion the right of faculty to select their own resources. Based on my experience trying to sell an upstart product in the higher ed market, this component of academic freedom is very much alive and well, at least in the United States. Because of that freedom, and because of the myriad companies and organizations working in the educational materials sector, I think there is cause for optimism.

On the other hand, don’t get me started about MOOCs.

This is the third post about my experience taking a MOOC (massive open online course). In part 1, I discussed the basics of the class and shared my early thoughts about the Coursera experience. In part 2, I expressed my frustration with the course assignments and humbly admitted to failing the second assignment.

The Introduction to Finance course is now into its seventh week, and I have fallen behind. In part this is because I made the common-sense decision to skip the assignments from here on out. It was clear from the second assignment, which I failed, that I was not going to be able to pass future assignments given the time I was willing to commit and given the lack of course support for struggling students like myself. Interestingly, I posted a note on the class discussion forum about my blog series, and several fellow students responded there (as they did in comments to this blog) to admit that they were having the same problems that I was: they found the assignments poorly designed and highly frustrating to work through, with no resolution at the end. When you don’t know why you missed a question, or how badly, it’s pretty difficult to learn anything from the experience.

In any event, having tossed the assignments overboard like so much excess baggage, I have continued to watch the video lectures, which I find informative and interesting. That said, without the need to keep up with the assignments, there is no longer a deadline on my video watching. I have thus fallen behind the weekly schedule, but this doesn’t concern me too much, since I’m doing the whole exercise for my general edification anyway.

MOOCs and Textbooks

In all of the fevered discussion about MOOCs that is taking place in higher-ed circles, one consistent theme is that MOOCs may replace traditional textbooks. Given my experience with my finance MOOC, I could see this happening. However, it depends on the subject area in question and on how we define a “textbook.”

In the case of the finance MOOC, the professor has suggested several “optional” textbooks, including one that is available for free online. They are optional, however, because they mainly cover the same ground as the professor does in his lectures, albeit with perhaps more depth. In other words, finance (at least this particular course, taught this particular way) is one of those disciplines where the typical lecture involves a basic introduction and explanation of fundamental tenets and concepts. Since those are the very things covered in a traditional textbook, I could certainly see how MOOC lectures could begin to supplant the textbooks in many areas.

Even in history courses, for all I know there are still professors whose lecture style involves a methodical transmission of the basic facts/events/themes in question—the very things covered in traditional history textbooks. However, my guess is that it’s more common for history classrooms to feature discussion based on readings that students have been asked to do prior to class, whether those readings consist of a textbook, primary sources, journal articles, or monographs.

Whatever the case, a MOOC cannot consist of class discussion, at least not as presently designed. It can really only involve the more traditional form of lecturing, with the professor expounding on main facts/events/themes. So here again, where we see history MOOCs being developed, I could imagine that they could proceed without any textbook.

Next-Generation Textbooks

However, at least in the area of history—and I suspect many other disciplines—traditional textbooks are beginning to morph into hybrid digital tools that blend a “textbook” with so-called courseware: assessments, primary documents, and so forth. Witness Cengage’s MindTap or Pearson’s MyHistoryLab or our own Milestone Documents. Unless I’m mistaken, the first two are still grounded on specific existing textbooks. (Milestone Documents is not.) Nevertheless, will MOOCs replace these?

My guess is, hardly likely. Certainly one could picture a MOOC being developed that creates not only the video lectures but also ALL supporting tools and elements from scratch. But this is an extremely expensive proposition, and I can’t see institutions going to this level with their MOOCs.

Instead, schools may well partner with the big education providers to incorporate their already existing digital courseware bundles into specific MOOCs. But in this scenario, the “textbook”—if we can still call it that—survives. It should be to no one’s surprise that the textbook giants have maneuvered themselves into a position of power. MOOCs replacing Pearson? Don’t make me laugh.

In my opinion, the whole discussion about MOOCs and textbooks is incidental to the much bigger issues of faculty retention/replacement, student benefits (or lack thereof), cost, and the general defunding of public education, at least in the United States. I’ll add my two cents to some of those issues in my next post.

This is the second post about my experience taking a MOOC (massive open online course). In part 1, I discussed the basics of the class and shared my early thoughts about the Coursera experience.

As I write today, we are about 4 weeks into the 15-week course “Introduction to Finance.” The class is structured in 3-week increments: 2 weeks of video lectures and 1 week of assignments. The first 2 weeks of video lectures proceeded smoothly. The lectures were simple to the point of simplistic. Guatam Kaul, our professor, is an appealing and engaging lecturer, and he explained the various concepts quite well. In most of the lectures, the explanations and minor exercises he asked us to perform were very easy, even to someone like me whose grounding in mathematics and accounting is quite shaky.

A Giant Exercise in Frustration

The assignments, however, were another story. There were 2 assignments to be completed in week 3, each tied to the concepts in one of the first 2 weeks. Each assignment had 10 questions and no time limit, and students were allowed 2 attempts to pass the assignment.

For the week 1 assignment, I sailed through the first 8 questions in about 5 minutes. The final 2 questions took me more than 2 hours, and I was able to answer them only by seeking help in the class’s discussion forum. Here, students are allowed to ask and answer general questions about the assignments as long as no exact answers are given. Even then, I answered one of those final questions incorrectly. But in the end,  I managed a score of 95 out of 100.

In the week 2 assignment, it got worse. I could answer the first handful of questions pretty easily, but the last several again proved impossible for me to answer without resorting to the discussion forum. To make matters worse, this time the aid provided by the discussion forum was less helpful than for the first assignment. Nearly 3 hours in, exasperated beyond measure, I called it quits and submitted my answers. My score: 55. Also known as an “F,” my first such grade in four decades of schooling. I did make another attempt, but a further 1.5 hours in, still struggling with the questions and the concepts that seemed so simple when described by Guatam, I gave up.

Why the disconnect between the lectures and the assignments? First, clearly, I have had difficulty grasping concepts presented thus far, even though that difficulty didn’t reveal itself until assignment time. Also, even though Guatam described the (free) online textbook as entirely optional, a resource that mainly covers the same ground as his lectures, I made little use of it. So I probably have only myself to blame. Still, I have to cast some blame on the design of the assignments, in which many of the questions seem to have been written as obtusely as possible in a clear attempt to make them more challenging. This is a common practice, as everyone will recognize from their own days in school. Without such manipulation, the questions would no doubt be too easy for too many students. But as for me, I had trouble figuring out what information some questions were asking for. In some cases, even when I got the right answer, I wasn’t sure why my answer was correct.

I Need Help from My Professor

I, however, am not one of the brightest and the best when it comes to the material covered in this class. As I was banging my head against the wall trying to make my way through the assignments, and as it became clear that the explanations of my fellow students in the discussion forum were not helping, it dawned on me: I needed access to the professor, the one person who has spent decades honing his ability to describe and explain these concepts to struggling students. That, along with his years of schooling as evidenced by his PhD, is in part why he is on the faculty of a prestigious business school like Michigan.

However, in the MOOC environment, such access is not possible. Instead, I was stuck with my fellow students—nice and smart people, no doubt, but not able to help me grasp the issues. What’s worse is that after failing my second assignment, I still don’t know why I failed. Students are not allowed to receive the assignment answers even after the quiz is over, lest they post them online for others to see.

A Daunting Task Ahead

Where does that leave me heading into week 4? It seems likely that my chances of receiving a certificate for successful completion of the course—given to those who pass most of the assignments and score a 70 on the final exam—are very low. After all, if I couldn’t even pass the 2nd assignment, and I don’t know why I couldn’t pass it, how am I going to keep up as the concepts (and assignments) grow more difficult?

Now, since I’m taking this class for my own edification and amusement, the certificate hardly matters to me. Still, my struggles aside, I consider myself far more prepared to succeed in an online environment than the vast majority of college students. It would seem that most students need more face-to-face time with professors and smaller class sizes. But universities around the world are rushing headlong in the opposite direction with this MOOC mania, which would seem to argue that better serving their students is perhaps not their chief goal.

For now, however, I will leave aside the thorny issues of MOOC efficacy, purpose, and suitability for courses in the humanities and social sciences. Instead, I will continue on with the video lectures and will see what value I can extract from the course, even if I end up failing it.

After seeing massive open online courses (MOOCs) suck up all the oxygen in the higher-education room for the past year, I decided it was time to try out one of these things for myself. So I have jumped into the deep end of the pool: not just a MOOC, but a MOOC on finance. Yikes. I may own a business, but let’s just say my strengths are on the content and creative sides. No one will ever confuse me with the great corporate finance geniuses of this or any other age. This will represent my first schooling experience since graduating from college back in the ‘80s and attending the University of Denver Publishing Institute.

At the insistence of my friend Jonathan Rees, who blogged about his own MOOC experience last fall, I am going to share some of my thoughts about this MOOC as I proceed through the class. Today, in part 1, I share the basics about the class and focus on the Coursera experience.

Introducing Guatam

The course I am taking is “Introduction to Finance,” taught by Guatam Kaul from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. It is a 15-week course with an expected workload of 6-8 hours per week. The fundamental elements of the course experience are twofold:

  1. Video lectures by Guatam: 2 hours’ worth of lectures each week, broken up into 10- to 20-minute chunks.
  2. Exercises and assessments: There are exercises built in to each of the video lectures and then formal assignments to complete every 3 weeks. Plus a final exam at the end.

There is no formal textbook for the class, but Guatam does suggest a couple of optional ones, including one that is available for free online. I chose this one, as I’m sure nearly all students do.

To date I have watched only the introductory videos from Guatam, in which he carefully and methodically lays out the structure of the course, how it will operate, and how best to approach it. Judging from these early videos, I would bet that Guatam is extremely popular with his “real” students at the University of Michigan. He comes across as warm, congenial, funny, and highly approachable. You never have to wait long for a smile from him. He earnestly admonishes us to focus on the learning experience, not grades or the final certificate, and he begs us to approach the course with an open mind, curiosity, and a love of learning. He states that he decided to teach the MOOC because he strongly believes that education—even an experience from a globally renowned institution like Michigan—should be accessible to everyone. His videos are shot in intimate close-ups, which is perfect for an instructor like him. I think the videos will fly by because he is so good in this format and so fun to watch.

The Coursera Experience

This course is offered through Coursera, which has probably gotten more ink than any other MOOC provider. My initial thoughts about Coursera are from a web design and UX (user experience) perspective, something that I think about a great deal with our Milestone Documents service. No doubt Coursera had access to the best design and UX talent that venture capital can buy, and it shows. The interface is clean, uncluttered, and very easy to navigate. This is no small thing: presenting a complex design in a simple way is exceedingly hard. In addition, the videos are crystal-clear. There is surprisingly little in the way of student analytics, but I would expect to see a greater use of these from Coursera as their service matures.

Next up for me in this class, now that I have made my way through the introductory material, are the first lectures and exercises from the meat of the course: dauntingly titled sections like “Time Value of Money” and “Simple Future Value.” I will discuss my initial experience with the class material in my next post.

I was recently interviewed by an industry analyst for Outsell about the higher education textbook industry. One of the things we discussed was where the textbook is going. Here are some of the elements I identified in that discussion, at least as they relate to history textbooks:

  • It will be native digital.
  • It will be Web-based. It’s too expensive to create special “editions” for different mobile devices like an iPad, so companies instead will create a Web platform that works across devices.
  • It will be a service, not a book: flexible, expandable, and constantly evolving. I’m not talking about new editions every 1-2 years, either, but a service that changes frequently throughout the semester with new content and features.
  • It will have primary sources as an essential component, if not the leading one.
  • It will be customizable by the instructor, who will assign only the parts that he or she wants to assign.
  • It will be interactive for both students and instructors, especially in the area of assessments.
  • There may not be a single authorial “voice,” but the content will still be authoritative and peer-reviewed.
  • It will make heavy use of analytics to deliver a more personalized, dynamic experience for students, and to provide faculty with new insight about how their students are learning.

What about Price? What about “Open”?

In the past few years, there has been a lot of time and money spent on the creation of free, open textbooks (or OER, for “open educational resources”) from companies like Flat World Knowledge and nonprofits like OpenStax. The movement is understandable, given the high cost of traditional textbooks. I have long wondered whether these “free” resources are sustainable. Flat World has just just come to the conclusion that they are not, but of course it’s a for-profit entity, so that was perhaps always to be expected. On the other hand, many faculty are passionate about OER, and so it does seem likely that some free textbooks will continue to be created. These may well be good resources—peer reviewed, well written—and will surely find an audience.

However, I feel that experimental digital textbook services of the future are more likely to come from for-profit entities, given the investment needed and the longer-term commitment required to improve and enhance the services over time. Thus, in my opinion, the textbook of the future (to continue with the ivory-tower theme that there will be only a single such entity) will be far more affordable than traditional textbooks, but it will not be free.

When Will the Future Arrive?

As the creator of Milestone Documents, a service that is built suspiciously close to the specs listed above (imagine that!), I would say that the future is now. Tongue only partly in cheek. In all seriousness, traditional textbooks still maintain a dominant position in the market, and I don’t see that changing terribly quickly. For one thing, the big publishers have a vested interest in slow change: they want the era of expensive textbooks (all published by them) to last as long as possible. For another, the market itself is notoriously slow-moving. At the recent American Historical Association annual meeting, the exhibit hall was still chock-a-block with books. Even many attendees insist on calling it a “book exhibit,” much to my chagrin. Our Milestone Documents booth was once again an odd duck here, with only a few fellow booths that were about something other than books: Alexander Street Press, Soomo, and BiblioBoard, to name a few. In the New York Times roundup of the meeting, Oxford University Press president Niko Pfund said that historians are “absolutely imprisoned in the format of the printed book.” I realize he was referring mainly to scholarly monographs and their role in tenure decisions, but the characterization doesn’t exactly fall apart when applied to textbooks.

Still, we are far from alone in working in this area. Many of the biggest publishers, from McGraw-Hill to Pearson to Cengage, are already investing huge sums to create next-generation learning services that include many of the features I listed above. Startups such as Knewton and Kno are also active on the scene, often working in concert with those big publishers. Here’s Jeff Young in a recent article in the Chronicle about these efforts:

“Major publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years buying up software companies and building new digital divisions, betting that the future will bring an expanded role for publishers in higher education.”

As Young points out, many publishers are maneuvering their digital services to be not just a new kind of textbook but in fact a “course in a box,” and many are speculating that such efforts will converge with MOOCs—the online learning systems that are attracting so much attention. In this scenario, the textbook is submerged into a larger service platform.

While such consolidation may indeed happen, individual faculty will still be looking for excellent content and a service solution that lets them teach their courses as they want. I think this bodes well for a future textbook solution that is not a mere cog in a giant MOOC platform but something that can stand alone on its own merits.