Page 13 - Campus Technology, July 2017
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Starting in the mid-1990s, the price of educational books rose faster than just about any other measure, including healthcare.
e-mail “doesn’t blow up when students are trying to do the problem that has an error in it.”
Fourth, the printed-textbook-first philosophy has stopped paying off for publishers. “You’re really seeing the end of a business model that had been failing everyone,” Wheeler asserted. “Rather than trying to kill the first guy with a $250 textbook — which he is then motivated to put back in the marketplace as a used book and sell against them — [the publishers] have finally come around to the idea that it’s a lot better for everyone if each user of their content pays a reasonable and modest fee.”
The three biggies — Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Cengage — weren’t first in line to sign on, even as additional universities piled onto Indiana U’s project. As a result, their reticence to promote textbook alternatives hit their bottom lines. Eventually, Pearson’s shares took a hit, hovering currently around $9; McGraw-Hill’s education division was peeled off and sold to Apollo Global Management in 2013; and just months later Cengage filed for bankruptcy, emerging a year later with $4 billion less debt.
Reaching the Tipping Point
The tipping point may finally have arrived in 2016 when, for the first time in 17 years, the College Board decreased the undergraduate student budget for books and supplies in its “Trends in College Pricing” report.4
Here’s the idea that kicked off the pilot: to negotiate with willing publishers to lower the pricing of their textbooks in return for getting the near-guarantee that every student in a course section would pay for it all upfront as a course fee and receive it in digital form. That included the ancillary content (“digital thingies” in Wheeler’s parlance) such as labs, flash cards and other digitized resources, which the university would take over and distribute — reducing support hassles.
The approach, now followed by Indiana U and a bunch of other schools, “structurally fixes the marketplace,” according to Wheeler, “so the content creators and publishers and editors who add value can get reasonably paid for their use of their content. And content consumers can buy content at reasonable prices, not the ridiculousness that we’ve seen with the spiraling costs of textbooks.”
Wheeler hates the name “e-text,” suggesting that it was foisted on higher ed by the publishers. His preferred moniker: “Day One Access.” That name derives from the idea that from the very first day of a new class the student has all the materials he or she needs. “I like that label because it speaks to one of the real values educationally of the program,” he explained.
However, he’s quick to emphasize that the decision about going digital is still up to the faculty member. “What we’ve
said to them is, ‘We’re putting this in place as an additional path. If you like what you’re doing, then keep doing what you’re doing. But if this looks like it’s a good value to your students pedagogically [and] helpful to your course, then you should opt in.’”
Beginning of the End
Starting in the mid-1990s, the price of educational books rose faster than just about any other measure, including healthcare. Something had to give. Wheeler has seen a “constellation of things” forming to bring about change. First, the e-reader software has matured, he said. “It works on your phone, your tablet, your laptop.”
Second, students are “increasingly digital.” They’re “comfortable with interacting with digital information [and] electronically marking it up.” After all, he noted, “some of them went through high school with digital books and materials.”
Third, familiarity is growing among faculty too. “They see e-texts not just as a substitute for paper, but as a teaching and pedagogical tool. They can go in and annotate that paragraph in the textbook and point to classroom materials or go online and correct something,” Wheeler explained. Suddenly, everyone’s book can be updated so the instructor’s

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