Everyone online, but who pays?

May 26, 2000

Universities and publishers should cooperate more if tomorrow's students are to be as well served for 'textbooks' as today's, says Mark Bide.The day of the "electronic textbook" has yet to dawn, despite forecasts that the new century will usher in network-delivered teaching and learning at all levels. Even in the United States, which generally provides us with early warning of coming technological revolutions, there is little evidence of upheaval.

It has become commonplace in the United Kingdom as well as the United States for new university textbooks to be accompanied by websites that carry supplementary content for students and for those teaching the courses. In a highly competitive market, websites have two major advantages to publishers for the delivery of this kind of material when compared with other media. First, they can be kept continually refreshed with new links and new content, enhancing the value of the (printed) textbook to the user. Second, the incremental delivery of the content from the site is in effect free - unlike traditional supplementary teaching materials that (particularly in the US) have to be given away and add massively to the cost of developing and marketing a textbook. The new technology is being used in cost-effective marketing support of the old.

Meanwhile, the print-on-paper textbook itself remains remarkably durable. Even the potential for significantly enhancing the educational experience through the addition of multimedia content - sound, moving images, interactive elements - to the traditional mix of words and pictures, has so far proved almost entirely resistible.

The web has overcome some of the big technological problems relating to online publishing, in providing us with a standard and reasonably robust platform. But we are a long way from the time when all students will have a sufficiently universal broadband connection to the network to be sure of being able to make use of a multimedia web experience whenever and wherever they may need it. The next ten years will see this situation change beyond recognition, but inexpensive universal access to technology remains a significant brake on any attempt to move content online for everyone.

A number of economic issues are also coming together to make a commercial move in the direction of the "online textbook" more difficult to accomplish. Simply converting the text of a printed textbook into digital form accomplishes little or nothing (although the widespread adoption of the "e-book" might change this). The real opportunity lies in much more complex forms of content, for which we have little or no precedent. One thing is certain: developing multimedia online learning content will be much more expensive than developing the same content for print-on-paper delivery. Delivery costs may be lower, but the publisher will be faced with an investment at least on a par with what is required today to deliver a conventional textbook. And therein lies a conundrum.

It is almost universal in the UK that students are expected to buy their own textbooks, creating a market worth more than £100 million every year. While the market has not grown anything like proportionately with the growth in the numbers of students over the last decade, this revenue is essential to support the business that creates and delivers textbooks to students.

Universities seem to expect the arrival of online teaching and learning to change this. The universities themselves (through their libraries) will pay for the necessary student access to this content, unlike with print-on-paper textbooks. Such an expectation can only place additional strain on the relationship between university librarians and publishers; unless the libraries are to receive an addition of more than £100 million in their funding (and this figure does not allow for the widely accepted view that the libraries are already substantially under-funded), how will they pay for online textbooks? And if no one has the money to pay for this content, which publisher is going to invest?

Are we asking the wrong questions? Perhaps education - particularly higher education - is going to change so much in the next ten years that the entire concept of the commercial publishing for this sector will become obsolete. Certainly, there are a few straws in the wind.

Will textbooks be superseded by electronic course packs of multimedia source materials, supplemented by individual lecturer's notes? As universities move more and more towards models of online distance learning, they are becoming increasingly jealous of the intellectual property rights involved in the development of course materials - will these be the textbooks of the 21st century?

Well, maybe. But those who anticipate such a future should perhaps stop and think about some of the very real difficulties that will accompany it. It is not easy to find academics willing and able to undertake the very hard work of developing high-quality textbooks for students. It will be even less easy to find authors for the task of developing non-linear, modular, multimedia content. While the traditional skills - and the new ones - needed for publishing high-quality pedagogically structured texts are not solely to be found in the publishing industry, they are not common in higher education.

The cost to universities of replacing the commercially published textbook will be very high, particularly if each university has to develop its own textbook for every course it teaches. For each university to develop a structure for managing its own publication process, the cost to the higher-education system as a whole will not be trivial. What is more, the opportunity that commercial publication provides for the whole of higher education to enjoy the work of the very best writers in any particular field will be lost. The current Darwinian open market ensures that the best textbooks are widely used - and the less good disappear without trace.

In the face of so much uncertainty, universities and the publishing industry should be working much more closely together to ensure that the undergraduates of 2010 are as well served as their counterparts today.

Mark Bide, a consultant to the Publishers Association, recently wrote a PA report, Electronic Publishing for Teaching and Learning in Higher and Further Education.

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