What Will the History Textbook of the Future Look Like?

January 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

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.

Neil Schlager


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