The Coming eTextbook Revolution in Higher Education

  • Posted by Frank Lowney
  • February 3, 2012 10:24 AM PST
  • 2 comments
  • 3,221 views
An analysis of the potential of eTextbooks in higher education with a proposed strategy and tactics for fully leveraging the advantages on behalf of college and university students, faculty and administrators.

The Coming eTextbook Revolution in Higher Education On January 19, 2012, Apple announced the availability of iBooks 2, for iOS, and iBooks Author for MacOS X. These two free applications compliment one another. One creates interactive, rich media eTextbooks (iBooks Author) and the other enables those eTextbooks to be read on an iPad (iBooks 2). Actually, their repertoire goes well beyond eTextbooks to include picture books, art catalogs, cookbooks, travelogues and so on. Previously (8/26/2010), Apple added ePub export to it’s venerable Pages application.

ebook software tools

At first, there was a great hue and cry about constraints on the use of .ibooks files created with iBooks Author and the lack of constraint by the EPUB 3 eBook standard released last October. Now that the "barking dog syndrome" that fuels today's echo-blogging has spent itself and the bit stream is calmer, more thoughtful analyses are beginning to emerge. For example, this, from John Gruber and this from Joseph Pearson regarding compliance with the EPUB 3 eBook standard.



The other big gripe had to do with the End User License Agreement (EULA) for iBooks Author. The part that irked most said that if you use iBooks Author to create an .ibooks file AND you set out to sell that .ibooks file, you can only do so through Apple's iBookstore. There are no restrictions if your eTextbook is free.

Since I think that eTextbooks should be free to students and that textbook authors should be rewarded in new and better ways than the grossly inefficient and unfair systems inherited from the print era, Apple's EULA doesn't bother me a bit. But for those who are bothered, the salient fact is that the .ibooks format is unencumbered and quite transparent. Thus, it is entirely possible to understand this format and either hand code *.ibooks files or build tools that do exactly the same thing as the iBooks Author app does. As well, there is nothing to stop those who make other hardware and software eReaders from endeavoring to develop the ability to display .ibooks files just as well as iBooks 2 does.

Surely, the validity and enforceability of this EULA will be tested in the courts and elsewhere. Interestingly, the plainer ePub output of Pages (text, images, audio and video so far) is not restricted by Apple in any way.

But we really have bigger and more important fish to fry here.

There is a revolution coming and these apps and others that will follow are its harbingers. 

For the first time in history, colleges and universities fully control the means of eTextbook production, start to finish, inception to delivery. They need no help in producing world class eTextbooks. The seeds of revolution are in hand.

The only imponderable is whether colleges and universities will sow those seeds and tend their gardens effectively. There are forces aligned against this so the outcome is not certain. Obviously, commercial textbook publishers will work very hard to avoid being dis-intermediated. Subject matter experts essential to the textbook creation process, such as faculty, will weigh their options carefully. Human inertia says that the odds are, so far, with the status quo but that could change.

Here's how that could happen. Here's how that revolution might occur.

iBooks Author (left) with iBooks on iPad (right)Caveat: My focus here is on higher education. The K-12 eTextbook situation is so different that it will have to be dealt with separately and at a later time. However, it is worth noting there are some interesting interrelationships between K-12 and higher education such as the fact that many K-12 textbooks are written by college and university academics. How higher education responds to these new opportunities will also have a profound effect on K-12.

My coming from a teacher education background means that I am vitally interested in both. So, on to the revolution in higher education. It's actually been a long time coming.



Not that long ago, publishing paper textbooks (pTextbooks) meant having to make large capital investments in paper, printing, binding, transportation, and storage. Additionally, one had to command a substantial corps of human talent in the form of editors, sales and marketing people. Textbooks were much more challenging than fiction due to the need for fact checking, illustrations, supplementary materials, exercises and so on. Fiction, on the other hand, is composed primarily of linear text, all handled by a single author.



The desktop publishing revolution of the early 90s was significant in that it empowered anyone with a computer, page layout software and laser printer to create documents with graphics and complex layouts that rivaled commercial pTextbook offerings. Any subject matter expert could create a small number of pTextbooks equal in quality and aesthetics to a commercial pTextbook.

Of course the economics of paper still favored the commercial publisher and so, the commercial publishers held on to their dominant position but the idea of independent textbook publishing had been born awaiting its time in the sun.

Very little changed until the Internet of the late 90s made it possible to distribute digital documents far and wide, usually in the form of Adobe PDF files or as web sites that perform the same function as a pTextbook. The rise of web-based Learning Management Systems (LMS) brought all of these components together under a single roof adding things such as automated testing. However, the commercial pTextbook persisted throughout all of this and continues to do so up to and including the present day. Why?



Publishers saw this threat and took action. The pTextbook grew digital supplements such as CDs and even DVDs with both interactive and rich media content. A pTextbook adoption might also include access to a publisher-hosted LMS or a 'course pack' that populated an institution-hosted LMS. Instructors were happy to adopt these 'turn-key' courses-in-a-box because creating their own video and interactive supplements, test item banks and building their own LMS courses was both onerous and unrewarding or just downright impossible.



So here we are in the first part of the 21st century. Made possible by the emergence of powerful mobile devices such as the Kindle, iPhone and iPad, the eBook is for the first time eclipsing pBook sales. Once again, commercial publishing is challenged as authors of fiction begin to succeed at self-publishing. The tools for doing this are all in hand: web sites with payment processing, the EPUB standard and applications that make EPUB-based eBook creation trivially easy. New intermediaries (e.g. Smashwords) and new outlets (Amazon Books, Google Books and Apple's iBookstore) with more favorable terms (viz. author gets up to 70% of sales instead of 25% royalties) have arisen to meet this new demand. 

Textbooks, on the other hand, are a bit more involved than creating a linear stream of text as is the case with a typical work of fiction. Even more so the eTextbook because it can contain interactive elements and rich media such as audio and video. Layout and exercises to facilitate learning are also key elements. Given these requirements, one might think that eTextbooks are best left to the professionals who work in the commercial publishing industry. Perhaps but this is by no means foreordained, especially now that software such as iBooks Author and iBooks 2 for the iPad are freely available.

It is now possible for subject matter experts (SMEs) such as college and university professors to create and distribute world class eTextbooks for the iPad with iBooks Author or for the iPad and many other platforms with various ePub creation apps such as Pages. No doubt, these will be accompanied by competing applications and hardware platforms over time.

Apple has set both a good example and a good pace. The Internet and all of its social networking and collaboration tools has also made it unnecessary for the all the work that an eTextbook requires be done by a single individual. The means with which to create eTextbooks that are pedagogically superior and significantly less expensive are in hand. 

Having in hand the means of production is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for this revolution to actually occur. SMEs are essential to this process and have had opportunities to dis-intermediate the publishing industry before but didn't do it. Why didn't that happen and why might that not happen in the near future? The answer and therefore the enemy of this revolution, is institutional tradition.

Let's take a look at that. 

Academic institutions employ SMEs to teach classes, do research and perform community service. Above and beyond the contracted salary and benefits, they reward these activities with promotion (Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor) and tenure. Promotion usually means a higher salary and tenure generally means greater job security where one can only be denied a contract for cause which implies due process. Typically, committees are formed to examine records and determine whether an eligible academic is worthy of promotion and/or tenure. One of the things that these committees value highly and therefore look closely at are the candidates' record of publication which may include one or more textbooks. Traditionally, it is the esteem in which the journal or publisher is held that determines the value assigned to the work. A textbook published by one publisher may be rated lower than a textbook published by another recognized commercial publisher. A self-published textbook might well be deemed as worthless as something published by a known "vanity" publisher who will print (for a fee) anything sent to them. In other words, most institutions of higher education outsource the evaluation of faculty textbook production to commercial publishers who, by the way, require the author to assign the copyright to them. The publisher holds the copyright. 

Being such a key part of the academic food chain, commercial publishers have been virtually guaranteed to have the right of first refusal on any textbook that might be written by a university professor. Although they are no longer the only game in town, they are still quite important to SMEs desiring promotion, tenure and royalties to supplement their income.

The new alternative of publishing an eTextbook via Apple's iBookstore appears to have only one of these incentives, 70% of the income derived from sales which may well be confined to one's home institution.

I suspect that this is not sufficient to entice large numbers of academics to try their hand at self-publishing an eTextbook. The consequence of this would likely be a continuation of high prices for nationally distributed, one-size-fits-all eTextbooks. Obviously, this is bad for students but it's also bad for society in that fewer citizens will be able to afford completing a college degree and bad for institutions seeking to maintain enrollments. What can be done?



Given that institutions can tolerate more risk than individual employees, I propose that we add textbook creation to the list of responsibilities for college and university faculty and then support that activity. Include the creation of teaching and learning materials in the definition of teaching and point out that this responsibility can be met in collaboration with others in one’s academic field. Institutional support for that objective should include items such as the following:


  • Add "teaching and learning materials creation" to the criteria for promotion and tenure decisions. Creating all or part of an eTextbook would be subsumed under this heading.
  • Invest in the development of assessment techniques to evaluate "teaching and learning materials creation" that does not involve commercial entities. A multi-institutional consortium or an organization similar to Merlot might be a good way to approach this objectively.
  • Provide ways and means for faculty to be eligible to receive either released time (e.g. one less class to teach) or extra compensation for eTextbook creation work such that the resulting eTextbook is a "work for hire" giving the institution copyright. Note that faculty are still free to create and market eTextbooks on their own time or work with commercial publishers to who they assign their copyright.
  • Provide support for faculty collaborating with colleagues elsewhere on developing eTextbooks in their field. This is likely a simple matter of arranging access to collaboration software (Internet access assumed).
  • Where the copyright to an eTextbook is held by the institution, provide copies of that textbook to students needing it for the lowest possible price, including free.
  • Where the copyright to an eTextbook is held by the institution, provide copies of that textbook to other non-profit institutions at the least cost possible consistent with cost recovery principles.
  • Enter into collaborative agreements with other institutions to develop eTextbooks that are especially challenging such that the copyright to the resulting eTextbook is jointly held by the cooperating institutions.

With institutional support such as suggested in the list above, participating institutions would be able to take fuller responsibility for and exercise more effective control over the educational experiences enjoyed by their students. This would lower costs for students and help colleges and universities better recruit and retain students. Faculty participating in the effort would receive important scholarly recognition and credit toward promotion and tenure as well as released time or extra compensation. Their teaching would involve less compromise because they'd have had a hand in the making of the textbooks assigned. This is a revolution that ought to happen and could come with a strong commitment to forge new traditions in higher education, a bit of good fortune and a great deal of hard work.

Lastly, let's deal with that bugaboo called copyright. With so many textbooks already in existence won't it be hard or impossible not to violate someone's copyright? What institution can afford to discover what permissions are needed and then secure them? First of all, state institutions and their employees are shielded by the 11th amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing sovereign immunity for state governments and their employees. That doesn't cover all cases and isn't nearly as potent as the next point. Second and most importantly, there is very little in textbooks that is copyrightable.

Specifically:

You cannot copyright a fact, concept or idea. You can only copyright the unique expression of an idea. Textbooks are primarily composed of facts, concepts and ideas. The content of most academic subjects has been covered so many times in so many ways, it would be difficult to meet the uniqueness criterion. For example, how many World History textbooks have described Hannibal's crossing the Alps? Which of those descriptions is unique?

I really don't know whether todays higher education leadership is both willing and able to attempt this revolution or not. One could argue that tough economic times make leaders more timid. They don't want to loose what little they've got. On the other hand, one could argue that tough economic times mean that there is less to loose and more to gain. I am convinced that if there is a will, there is now a way.

2 comments
  • James Marko and Richard Wolf like this
  • Richard Wolf
    Richard Wolf Hi Frank,
    Just curious…you say:
    Traditionally, it is the esteem in which the journal or publisher is held that determines the value assigned to the work. A textbook published by one publisher may be rated lower than a textbook published by another recogni...  more
    February 7, 2012
  • Frank Lowney
    Frank Lowney Hi Richard. Yes, I do think that higher education will eventually come up with assessment techniques that don't rely upon the profit-oriented decisions of commercial publishers. Indeed, crowd sourcing and various web and non-web analytics schemes will l...  more
    February 10, 2012