Archives For Textbooks

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

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, 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.

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.

It appears that college students are slowly coming around to the notion of digital textbooks. A new study by Bookboon notes that 58% of U.S. students prefer digital textbooks over print ones. Take a look at the infographic from Bookboon, however. There are some eye-opening stats:

  • More than 75% do not always buy the required textbooks.
  • Nearly 97% find textbooks to be too expensive. (Maybe the other 3% have parents who work for textbook publishers?)
  • More than 90% of the time, students need only a few chapters from an assigned textbook.

The Reasons for Slow Digital Adoption Have Nothing to Do with Digital

There have been some ridiculous press reports in the past couple of years implying that students are cool about digital textbooks because of the digital platform. In reality, of course, the slow uptick in positive student opinions about digital textbooks has been due to other factors. First and foremost, many digital textbooks have been just as expensive as traditional printed ones. Second, most digital textbooks have been replicas of the printed versions. In those scenarios, why would any student choose a digital textbook over a printed one?

In light of this study, I was interested to see that some of the large textbook players have teamed together on an expanded pilot program to increase digital textbook use. The new textbooks will be provided by McGraw-Hill and delivered via the Courseload system. I think this is a positive development, and I’m glad to see other publishers working on lower-priced digital options. I’m also glad that they have come up with a Web-based platform. Nonetheless, I still think this particular model is unnecessarily limited for two reasons:

  1. It still relies on a traditional textbook paradigm: a straightforward narrative of a certain length (not too long) on a subject. This paradigm was created in part so that it could fit inside a printed book. It has its uses but also severe limitations. I’m convinced that the “textbook of the future,” by which I mean the one that will come to dominate in most subject areas, will be an exploded version that takes advantage of the digital environment. It can be much larger, it can incorporate many elements besides the linear narrative, and it can be constantly evolving.
  2. It cannot be customized to a professor’s wishes. Given the flexibility inherent in digital, textbooks should be able to be customized to the needs of each professor, by that professor. There should be total alignment between what the professor wants to teach and the material the students are presented with.

Moving Students from Faint Praise to Excitement

If you read between the lines of the infographic linked to at the top of this post, you still sense that students are lukewarm about digital textbooks—at least the particular kind under discussion. Who can blame them?

At the same time, I do think it’s possible for those of us creating digital textbooks to do so in a way that elicits something more than faint praise. We are certainly trying to push in this direction with our Milestone Documents service. Last week, one of the professors who assigns our site in her courses reported that on the first day of class, when she told students that they would not be using a textbook but instead a digital service that costs less than $20, the students applauded. It seems they were responding on two levels: 1) cheap; 2) not a “textbook.”

Will they still be so enthusiastic at the end of the term? We shall see. Our site is young and improving, and our list of planned enhancements is lengthy and growing. Has the word “textbook” taken on a negative connotation? Clearly it has. Can we publishers reinvent the textbook in a way that actually serves our customers (professors) and delights our users (students)? I think we can, and we must. After all, if three-quarters of your users are willing to defy their professors and not buy your product, you ought to see some warning lights on the horizon.


This is the final post in a series about the key pivots our company has made in the past few years. In part 1, I discussed our first major pivot: the decision to begin producing and owning our own content. That pivot led to the creation of our Milestone Documents series of reference books. In part 2, I explained our decision to wind down our reference publishing and focus instead on reaching educators and students directly via We spent the last half of 2010 redesigning the site, switching to a subscription model, and gearing up for a late 2010 launch. Alas, by the time of the launch, yet another pivot was practically begging to be made. This is the story of that pivot, which turned out to be critical.

The Adoption Model

Over the course of the fall of 2010, while working with our designers and developers on version 2.0 of our site, we began to mull over the possibility of marketing our site directly to college history professors as a textbook replacement. At first, it seemed a distant possibility. However, we decided to poll some of the scholars who had written our expert commentary to ask them whether they might use and assign a site such as ours to their classes.

To our surprise, a fair number of these historians responded positively to our inquiry. They loved the idea of having a large number of primary source documents to choose from, they liked the all-digital paradigm, and they were in favor of anything that might reduce their students’ textbook costs, which had soared to $100 apiece and beyond. We quickly settled on an approach in which we would give away the site to all students whose professors assigned it for the first semester. The idea was to let professors try it out with their students risk-free, and then—presuming the professors (and students) were pleased with the service—begin charging students a fee of $50/semester thereafter. At that level, we reasoned, the site would still offer a tremendous savings over a traditional textbook.

We quickly made plans to attend the American Historical Association annual convention in Boston in January 2011, where with very little notice we would attempt to launch our new adoption campaign to professors attending the conference. We had a large banner printed that said “Ditch the Textbook,” and we set up a couple of tables with computers on them.

Making a Splash

It’s hard to describe what an outlier our little booth was at that first convention. Amidst a sea of booths filled with books, ours was a spartan square devoid of “stuff”: no books, no brochures, just me and Andrea Betts with our computers and a cheeky, slightly outrageous banner that drew stares, guffaws, and occasionally even hostile responses from attendees (“I’m not ditching my textbook. I WROTE the textbook!”). However, more typical were the warm greetings, serious interest, and outright praise (“This is great. You are the future!”). We signed up a number of professors for semester trials that spring, and we made connections with many others who would later on become loyal customers.

Settling In for the Long Haul

By the end of that first semester, we knew we had a product that could succeed. Surveys of the professors and students using the site were almost uniformly positive. Most of our professors signed up to continue using the site in the fall term. At the same time, however, we realized that we had launched the site in a form that was not quite ready for prime time. It lacked any central organizing place where professors could interact with and direct their students. Our coverage in certain key areas was lackluster. The site didn’t offer professors enough flexibility in choosing which elements to assign to students.

And, very importantly, we realized that our price point was too high. Sure, $50 might be a bargain to students used to having to pay $100 or more for a textbook. But a number of our professors confessed that they preferred to assign our site not as a replacement to their traditional textbooks but as a companion to it. In those scenarios, we were making the crisis of expensive textbooks even worse.

Course Corrections

What has followed in the wake of that first semester more than a year ago is a series of course corrections. We added unique home pages for every class using the site. We added tons of new documents and new controls for professors. Finally, we dropped the price to $19.95 per semester.

These actions are not additional “pivots” in my mind but something less radical. Every business, especially an upstart like ours that is pioneering a new approach in a digital format, has to make constant improvements and enhancements to find the sweet spot where customers (professors) and users (students) alike are thrilled with the service and loyal to it. That’s exactly what we’ve done. And while we are still working hard to find our way to that elusive sweet spot, we are getting closer every day.

So what’s ahead for our service? Are there additional pivots in store? One should never say never, but my guess is that we have only just now joined the battle, and it took those 3 initial pivots to find the battlefield. Our service has matured to the point where it is a viable choice for a sizable and growing number of educators—not only at the college level but also at the high school level—and our challenge is to do the hard work of telling our story, reaching out to customers, and making our product ever better. First came the pivots, laying the foundation. Now comes the execution, building upward toward the sky.