I saw recently that Malcolm Gladwell’s next book is going to be about underdogs. In this interview at the New Yorker’s website, he talks about some examples from his forthcoming work: a girls’ basketball team, a cancer researcher, the Impressionist painters. One of the points he makes is that underdogs can win only with the right combination of effort plus strategy. Effort alone won’t cut it.
In the business world, one of the key factors in any underdog’s success (or lack thereof) is the general state of the industry in question. There are plenty of industries where the barriers to entry are so high, and the market so mature, that it’s difficult for underdogs to compete. However, there are many others that are experiencing some measure of upheaval. Consider publishing, for example. In an interview at Digital Book World about book publishing and e-books in particular, Kobo executive Michael Tamblyn made this observation:
When industries are stable and things are ticking along steadily, industries tend to be dominated by insiders; you have to grow up in it and pay your dues. During times of upheaval is when outsiders get in, when start-ups get in, when innovators get their shot.
Disruption in Education
Or consider the higher education market, which is abuzz these days with talk about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Several entities have formed to offer new online courses in this area (Coursera, EdX, Udacity), and they include some of the most famous universities in the country. Despite the lack of any clear business model or any evidence that online learning is as good as (or superior to) traditional classroom learning, huge amounts of investment money are being poured into this marketplace. It’s like a modern-day gold rush, only no gold has been found. A good many people had a chuckle about this remark in a New York Times article about Coursera’s latest expansion announcement:
Coursera does not pay the universities, and the universities do not pay Coursera, but both incur substantial costs.
So in other words, it’s a win-win situation! Obviously, these new online players are making a bet that a revenue model will be found at some point. And maybe they are right. If they are, then MOOCs will indeed prove to be enormously disrupting to many organizations in the higher ed field. In this case, the disruption may lead to a consolidation of power at elite universities at the expense of the rest, a point made by Mills Kelly of George Mason University.
Looking for an Edge
Like every other company that services the higher ed market, we are watching these developments closely and wondering how they might affect us. And there is no doubt that for a small upstart like our Milestone Documents service, online education represents a significant opportunity. I say this even though personally I’m quite skeptical about online learning. We didn’t design Milestone Documents specifically for online learning (and most of our customers use us in a traditional classroom setting), but it happens to be perfectly suited to an online environment. At the same time, the competition will be fierce, from the established heavyweights at the top to other upstarts at the bottom. A market in the midst of change may open up spaces for small innovators, but the journey is still long and difficult.
What about your market? If you’re an underdog in your industry, how do you succeed? What’s your strategy for changing the rules of the game so that it tilts in your favor? These are the questions that a lot of us in the higher education industry—companies and institutions alike—will be working on in the next few years.
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the slow evolution of my blogging habits. In Part 2, I focus on other social media efforts that I conduct personally or for our Milestone Documents service: Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I was skeptical of Twitter when I first heard about it. I thought that a tool for short posts confined to 140 characters was a ridiculous proposition. Who could ever have time for such a thing?
Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to see the light. Twitter is now a part of my daily routine. It’s both enjoyable and highly instructive: it’s probably my chief source of information about my industry (educational publishing) and about higher education, business, and technology in general. That’s not to say that I’m terribly effective in using Twitter or engaging with others on it. One look at my follower count (some 530 or so at present) will tell you that.
I’m also responsible for managing our Milestone Documents Twitter account, although at present my activity there is really led by the Facebook efforts of Managing Editor Marcia Merryman-Means. More on that below. It’s probably not surprising that the MD Twitter account enjoys about the same level of (mediocre) success as my own, given that the same person is managing both. At present, we have about 550 followers on this account.
You’ve read it before, and it’s true: to be successful on Twitter, you have to spend the time to tweet frequently and be resolute about following people and brands of interest and engaging with them. It takes patience, effort, and doggedness.
Tools I use: For my daily Twitter activity, I mainly rely on Tweetdeck. On occasion, I find it’s useful to do certain activities directly on Twitter’s website. At home in the evenings or on weekends, however, I mostly monitor Twitter via Flipboard on my iPad.
Our Milestone Documents Facebook page has likewise been a challenge to maintain and to grow. At present, we have fewer than 200 “likes” on our page. On Facebook, as on Twitter, we have a fundamental conundrum: most of our site is behind a paywall. Social media thrives on links, and what good are links when people who click on them are met with a barrier? To make matters more complicated, most of our social media followers are high school educators, but most of our users are college students. That is a profound disconnect that we haven’t yet solved.
For both Facebook and Twitter, we recently switched to a monthly thematic focus for most of our posts. First, Marcia chooses a sensible theme from our content. (This month, for instance, she is spotlighting famous Supreme Court decisions.) Next, she creates an editorial calendar that shows which documents she will focus on each day of the month; as part of this step, she also identifies outside sites and projects of interest. As the last step in the process, she posts about the day’s document spotlight, and she follows this up with relevant links to other sites. I then use her posts to populate our Twitter feed.
Since adopting this model, we have seen an uptick in the number of “likes” on our Facebook page as well as the engagement with our posts by our fans. Nonetheless, the paywall barrier remains an issue, as does the disconnect between the content we post and the kinds of fans we have.
Going forward, it’s clear that we’ll need to figure out a way to produce content that is more meaningful to the college students who form the bulk of our users. With a new school year almost upon us, we’ve got a few ideas about how to adapt our approach.
I have a personal Google+ account, and I’ve also set up one for Milestone Documents. (I can’t even figure out how to embed links to those profiles, which says something about the difficulty of using Google+.) However, my engagement on both fronts is even more minimal than on Twitter. I know that some people and brands have had success with this tool, but from what I can tell, very few of our customers are using it. Perhaps it is never going to make sense for a niche brand like ours. The jury is out.
- You’ve got to commit the resources. Whether you’re working as an individual or on behalf of a company, being successful with social media requires time, effort, and consistency. If you are a small business like ours, you need to carefully weigh the necessary commitment against the potential benefits.
- You’ve got to align your content with your audience. This sounds simple, and for many people and brands, it probably is. But in our case, it’s not.
- Ultimately, it’s not about numbers. In the end, the goal isn’t really to have a ton of followers on Twitter, Facebook, or any other service. Instead, what really matters is the quality of the followers you do have and how well your content matches their needs.
My hope for our social media strategy is to continue refining our approach, tinkering and experimenting until we find one that works better for us. When we do that, our number of follows will grow organically, and their level of engagement with our content will rise in the same way.
You know those articles that tell you how to use social media to good effect for yourself or your company? This is not one of those posts. Rather, I thought I would come at the topic from the opposite end: failure. Or at least, mediocre effect. In today’s installment, I’ll focus on blogging. In the next post, I’ll focus on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
How Not to Be a Successful Blogger
I started this blog several years ago, when our company was only just beginning to create our own content (after years producing content for other publishers). At the time, our intention was to stick to the market we knew best: library reference publishing. As a result, my early blog posts tended to address that sphere. However, I made several mistakes—the kind that all the experts warn you about:
- I focused too narrowly. That is, most of my posts focused on our company, our products, and our market. If I were the CEO of Google, this would have been a minor problem. As the head of a tiny publisher in a niche market, the result was predictable: a serious case of parochialism, aka “posts that no one else cares about reading.” Sensing that this was the direction my blog was heading led me to the next mistake.
- I lost interest. Alternately, I got busy. Behind these excuses, however, is a more fundamental one: I failed to properly plan and manage blogging as a part of my daily routine. Even as our business took some interesting twists and turns, migrating away from library reference publishing and into educational publishing—a dynamic industry in the midst of upheaval (i.e., one filled with no shortage of blogworthy topics)—I failed until recently to reassess the blog’s role in the company and in my position as CEO.
- I didn’t blog enough. This is related to #2, obviously, but it’s important enough to call out on its own. You can’t have a successful blog if you blog only every few weeks or months, even if your posts are fantastic and have broad appeal (neither of which was true in my case).
Turning Things Around
Recently, I made the decision to restart this blog. I have always felt that the act of blogging can be an important creative endeavor for any business owner. It can help you not only generate ideas but also think deeply about issues important to you and your business. In resuming the blog, I made a few key changes:
- I started using Windows Live Writer. Blogging live directly in WordPress was always a challenge, but switching to Live Writer has made the practice far easier. It lets you create and save drafts with no hassle, and it shows you exactly what the blog will look like when you publish it. It’s made my blogging life far easier.
- I made use of the talent on my team. It’s always best when you can show your writing to another person. In my case, I had a terrific sounding board already in place: Managing Editor Marcia Merryman-Means. Now, after I write each draft, I send it to Marcia for editing. She returns it with corrections and comments.
- I broadened my focus. Rather than writing relentlessly about our company and our products, I am trying to pitch these posts more broadly—not just to the larger publishing community but also to small-business owners and creative professionals, many of whom now run their own enterprises.
The turnaround is very much a work in progress, one that will surely undergo refinement the more I blog. There are still elements I need to put in place, such as a more formal editorial calendar. Also, I badly need to upgrade to a newer version of WordPress, one with a more appealing design theme. I plan to do that within a few months as part of switching the blog to a new domain, neilschlager.com. All in good time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Want to build a successful blog, for yourself or your company? First, you need to define what “successful” means to you. It might be getting a huge number of followers, ultimately allowing you to monetize your blog. But it might be something different, such as crafting a strong voice that adds depth to your business profile and garners you a higher level of influence within your industry.
Second, follow the leaders. Here are some links to people who do it right. These are people whose blogs I myself subscribe to:
- Six Pixels of Separation: Mitch Joel’s blog is crazy-successful, and he doesn’t need any shout-outs from me. Still, I find his posts to be uniformly interesting, beautifully written, and engaging, even though he operates in a very different industry (marketing). I learned about Windows Live Writer from his blog, and the savvy reader will notice a similarity in how our blog posts are structured (a few headlines form the spine). You can guess who copied whom.
- Small Biz Lady: Yeah, she doesn’t need my endorsement either. Melinda Emerson has created a vibrant network via her blog and her other social media efforts (especially Twitter). She happens to be writing a series on successful blogging this week, and she’s recently started blogging for the New York Times’s “Your the Boss” section, which I follow religiously.
- More or Less Bunk: I mention my friend Jonathan Rees often, and with good reason. His blog wasn’t created to have the mass appeal of Mitch’s or Melinda’s. Still, it succeeds brilliantly thanks to Jonathan’s bold, authentic voice; targeted subject area; and disciplined work habits—he posts almost every day and backs it up with a strong Twitter presence.
There is no shortage of other incredible examples in any number of industries. (Here’s a timely blog post by an academic blogger, Jason Heppler. His rules apply broadly.) They all do many things well, and they all provide a great road map for the aspiring (or existing) blogger to follow.
In the business world, “change” is a hallowed term. If your business isn’t constantly assessing the changing market and figuring out ways to adapt, it will be in trouble. As a business owner, I understand this well. Like most owners, I have long since grown accustomed to not just adapting to a changing marketplace but also figuring out ways to disrupt it, to heap more change upon it.
In our industry (educational publishing), for example, plenty of companies and nonprofit organizations have looked at the dynamics of the traditional academic textbook model—particularly as it relates to pricing—and decided that it was sorely in need of having some change foisted upon it. I referred to this in my recent post “Competing on Price.”
Small companies have an advantage here over big ones: they can pivot quickly, turning on a dime to take advantage of a new opportunity or to fine-tune the path they are following. Still, this capability carries a large risk: small businesses must take care not to change too quickly, not to act too impulsively. If your company, like mine, operates in an industry undergoing major upheaval, this is a very real danger. Making sure you install some checks on your decision-making process is critical.
At big companies, the challenge is the reverse: turning the ship around takes time, skill, and finesse. Leaders must convince staff throughout the organization that change is not only important but, indeed, essential, and they must provide a vision for executing that change in a way that doesn’t threaten the existing business. To my mind, one of the most fascinating experiments going on right now in the corporate world is taking place at JC Penney, where former Apple exec Ron Johnson is trying to overhaul this large retailer from the ground up. It has not been a smooth ride so far, to no one’s surprise. Have they moved too quickly on some changes? Can they survive the rough road ahead and reposition themselves on the retailing landscape? It will be interesting to watch.
Not Everything Is a Business
What about educational and governmental institutions? One hallmark of our times, at least in the United States, is our mania for infusing “business thinking” into organizations that are not businesses. Certainly, there are many who advocate for this approach, and not surprisingly many who do are business leaders themselves. But failing to consider the different missions of a business and an educational institution can jeopardize any effort at change.
Consider the recent fiasco at the University of Virginia. A minority of the governing board, all of them business leaders, decided that the university was not changing fast enough and that the university president, Teresa Sullivan, was the one responsible for putting the brakes on. So they fired her, only to encounter such vehement pushback from faculty and alumni that they had to back down and reinstate her. Not only did the board not account for the other stakeholders in their organization (thus mistaking their university for a business, where top-down decision-making is more acceptable), but they also appear to have reacted too impulsively to various well-hyped changes taking place in the educational industry. The juxtaposition of Sullivan’s measured approach to change and the governing board’s reckless follies would make for a great business school case study.
Managing change successfully is one of the biggest challenges for any leader, whether in business or some other sphere. I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes in this arena. As a result, I think the smartest approach to change management is to keep your skeptic’s hat on at all times. When considering a new course of action, here are some good questions to ask yourself:
- Is this change really necessary?
- Will it benefit our customers?
- How do I successfully persuade our organization’s stakeholders to get on board with this change?
- What are the potential risks of action and nonaction?
I have played tennis most of my life. One of the great things about the sport is that every matchup is different: what works against one opponent won’t necessarily work against another. But behind this important truth lies another one: each player has a limited skill set at his/her disposal. Even the great Roger Federer, widely acknowledged to have perhaps the most diverse set of shots in the history of the game, has limitations. There are some things he can’t do. At the same time, there are many things he does phenomenally well. In any given match, his task is to figure out how to maneuver each point so that he can take maximum advantage of his strongest shots and protect against his weakest ones.
Challenging Federer: Your Strongest Shots
For small companies like ours, the challenge is much the same. Only in our cases, we aren’t playing the role of Roger Federer. We are playing his foil. And let’s not kid ourselves: we aren’t exactly Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic either. Rather, we are like the 19-year-old up-and-comer who has never before played on Centre Court or the 32-year-old journeyman ranked #150 in the world. Our skill sets are far more limited than Federer’s, so the task before us is monumental as we challenge the enormously gifted player across the net. What advantages do we have? Here are some that come to mind:
- Move nimbly: Perhaps the biggest advantage of being small is that we can turn on a dime. The larger player often has so many interests, so much history, and such a vast existing territory to protect that he has to move slowly and carefully. Not so the little guy.
- Think outside the box: As the underdogs, one of the best tools at our disposal is to think creatively about the challenges before us. Sometimes that means not following the “traditional” path.
- Play like you have nothing to lose: Go on, take some risks. Try the unconventional approach. It’s unlikely that you’ll beat the top dog by playing the game his way. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail. So fail. Just try to keep your bets small. That way, you can fail, then try again. Rinse and repeat.
Protect against Your Weaknesses
While there are many advantages to being the small player challenging the giants, you won’t be successful if you don’t keep your limitations in mind. For many small businesses, these weaknesses often boil down to a question of resources. The established companies in your industry are probably able to compete on many different fronts at once, offering a wide array of products and services. Trying to compete so broadly is a fool’s errand: you will quickly exhaust your resources. Instead, choose one or two areas and focus your efforts. This applies not just to the mix of products and services you offer but the manner in which you advertise and market as well. Look for ways to get the word out without the huge media purchases that a larger company would make.
Being Small Can Be Fun
Luckily for small businesses, we live in a time in which being small can be a lot more fun than being huge. You don’t have to worry about pleasing lots of shareholders, and you don’t carry the baggage and history of a well-known brand. The niche player can often enter the market far more cheaply than used to be possible, and the Internet offers myriad ways to build and market your brand on a shoestring.
At the risk of mixing my sports metaphors, let me offer one final piece of advice: Punch above your weight!
The academic textbook industry is rather crazy. For example, the people who decide what product to use are not the ones who have to pay for it. A professor selects his/her preferred textbook and other supporting materials; the students pay for them.
Except that, increasingly, the students don’t pay. They borrow a friend’s copy. They rent. Or they just do without and hope for the best. Why? It’s not that they are displeased with the product or find it too bulky or hard to use. Rather, it all boils down to one simple fact: high prices.
E-textbooks: More of the Same
When digital textbooks began to appear a few years ago, many observers hoped the new versions might herald an era of more affordable products. But they failed to consider that the companies making most of those textbooks have very little incentive to lower prices, because professors care more about what’s in a book than its price. What’s more, publishers are under enormous pressure to keep prices high—from their own bottom lines. Last week Phil Hill made this same point on Twitter:
Textbooks marketed 2 faculty & most institutions very poor as intermediaries; therefore no mechanism for student market dynamics.
In other words, with faculty making the adoption decisions, there is not much room for students to influence the market.
Our Dilemma, Our Opportunity
While I agree with Phil on this point, I think there is still room for students to make a difference, via upstart publishers looking for an advantage. As it happens, the increasing groundswell of student complaint and frustration about high textbook prices has coincided with the digital revolution. Thus, companies looking to break into the market—a market poised to reward publishers that offer effective new digital solutions—happen to have a handy new stick to wield against the established players: price. Perhaps it’s a small stick, but it shouldn’t be discounted at a time when other elements of the market are in such flux.
We are one such upstart publisher. When we launched Milestone Documents in 2011, we knew from the outset that we wanted to compete aggressively on price. That is hardly enough to guarantee success for us: As both Phil Hill and my friend and customer Jonathan Rees mentioned in that same Twitter conversation, faculty still care more about quality, pedagogy, and completeness than price.
Nevertheless, it’s clear we are part of a larger trend. The various open-access textbooks beginning to appear on the scene are priced even more aggressively than ours. While “free” isn’t the right choice for us, such products can only increase pressure on the established publishers to lower their prices.
Phil brings up another point, too: the advent of institutional licensing deals with publishers for e-textbooks presents another opportunity to exert pressure on prices. These licenses sometimes provide cushion for the publishers by ensuring that every student enrolled in a course is charged money for the textbook. With the guarantee of 100% buy-in from students (as opposed to 50-60% with traditional textbooks), publishers can safely offer lower prices without their bottom lines taking a hit.
Are there other factors that could lead to lower prices? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I maintain that innovation and competition from smaller publishers offer the best hope. Still, let’s revisit this in 1-2 years to see where the market has moved.
There were many strange aspects to the ouster of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia earlier this month. One of the most alarming reasons given, according to the Washington Post, was her apparent unwillingness to slash the budgets of “obscure academic departments in classics and German”—programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially.
Many observers have had a field day with those reports, and rightfully so. One of my favorites came from Siva Vaidhyanathan, a UVA professor who also blogs at Slate. Writing after Sullivan was reinstated, Vaidhyanathan remarked:
[Board Rector Helen] Dragas demanded top-down control and a rapid transition to a consumer model of diploma generation and online content distribution. She wished to pare down the subjects of inquiry to those that demonstrate clear undergraduate demand and yield marketable skills.
In other words, keep only the subjects that have a clear vocational objective. One presumes this viewpoint could logically include almost any subject in the humanities.
This Business Owner’s Objection
Why would I, as a small-business owner, not look kindly on efforts to streamline university education, eliminate niche majors, cut costs, and focus resources on the most marketable and business-friendly subjects? It’s simple: my own career, and my business, have been made possible by the humanities. Not only am I a humanities graduate (history, Ibero-American studies), but virtually every employee I have hired during the past 15 years has been as well—most of them graduating with degrees in literature or history.
From this foundation, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves (IMHO). We’ve built an innovative digital service for history educators and students, one that is successfully competing against the titans of educational publishing. Sure, when it came time to program the Web backbone of our service, we hired computer experts who had those skills. When we’ve needed advertising or marketing materials, we’ve hired graphic design talent. But all of the larger strategic decisions about how to develop our content, how to position our site in the marketplace, and how to attract instructors and students to use it were made by our in-house staff—humanities grads every one of them. And we are hardly unique on this point.
What do humanities grads bring to an organization? Here is just a partial list that I came up with:
- Ability to think critically
- Excellent communication skills
- A grounding in historical and literary tradition and the ability to compare present issues to the past
What business wouldn’t benefit from employees with those qualities?
The Fight Is Not Over
Still, the humanities are threatened by economic trends and the shortsighted perspective that would sacrifice all at the altar of STEM education. Don’t get me wrong: science and math education is hugely important and deserves all the support and attention it can get. But if university boards start lopping off “non-essential” majors like classics or German (or history or literature or Ibero-American studies), we will all be poorer for it. And that includes American businesses.
“Information wants to be free.” So goes the famous saying attributed to Stewart Brand about digital products and services. And perhaps it’s true in a lot of cases. Wikipedia was revolutionary, and it’s become a great resource for basic data on all sorts of topics. I use it myself all the time—not for serious editorial work or formal writing, mind you, but certainly for casual questions that come to mind. And consider government data: there is no question that such data should by and large (if not always) be free.
By “free,” I mean (in this context) “free of charge.” As opposed to “free to share,” for example.
The Textbook Industry
In my industry (academic textbooks and related materials), there has been a wave of interest in so-called Open textbooks. Both private companies and educational institutions have created free textbooks. Students, naturally, tend to love the idea. And why not? They’ve dealt with punishingly expensive textbooks for years now, with prices going ever higher and publishers searching for creative ways to keep the used textbook market at bay.
However, consider me a skeptic on free textbooks. Trust me on this: quality educational materials are neither cheap nor easy to create. And with the future sure to be increasingly digital, educational materials will have to be kept up to date. Again, not cheap. Not easy. The groups funding the “free” materials are going to have to earn their money back sooner or later. Then what happens to “free”?
Business Owners: The Case for the Middle Way
Rather than rush from one extreme (“hideously expensive”) to another (“free”), it seems to me a better case can be made for the middle way: modestly priced, but not free. Naturally I would think that, since that’s the path I’ve chosen for our Milestone Documents service. But I think this approach is a good one for any number of companies in any number of digital industries, not just textbooks. Consider the advantages:
- The company can earn money. Isn’t that ultimately the goal (if not a requirement) of a for-profit company?
- The company has a stream of revenue that it can use to continually improve the product/service.
- If the price is reasonable, customers (in our case, students) can still save lots of money, or at least see your product as a great value.
If your company is operating in a mass-market industry, or one where the scale is such that your venture can ultimately be funded by advertising, then perhaps free is the right approach for you. For everyone else, I’d urge caution. Charging money for a good product/service is not unethical. Even better: charging a modest fee for a great product/service is eminently sensible. That’s our goal with Milestone Documents, and it’s one that I think can apply to many digital businesses.
As the dust has settled on Apple’s iBooks Author, it’s interesting to see the announcement’s impact. The model’s surprising lack of imagination was widely explored and in perfect pitch IMHO by Audrey Watters. We’re used to innovation from Apple, but its new offering, well … as I said to a reporter who asked for an opinion about its ability to shake up the textbook market, there are disruptions coming, but this isn’t one of them.
But though it may not accelerate the textbook market today, I think the Apple e-textbook announcement has had an impact by fueling the discussion of the archaic nature of the present textbook model and where our future lies. To that I say, well done.
Our disappointments in the textbook market form a well-worn trail, starting with ever-loftier prices foisted upon students and their parents. Over the past few decades the needs of professors and students alike have received little attention as publishers have tried to combat the used book market with shorter revision cycles and fought for market share through sheer volume of new entrants. It’s created an expensive machine to operate, and it’s being funded by students. Alas, those practices have brought about a backlash that is fueling the drive for a new model today.
I was just alerted to an ongoing study of student attitudes by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) that says students are opting out of the purchase of current editions of textbooks – new or used – at an alarming rate. Only 59% now invest in the current edition. Read that last sentence this way: More than 40% of students don’t see value in their assigned text. What are they doing instead? They’re renting (but only 11%), buying old editions, or illegally downloading or photocopying. Or they’re doing their best to pass the course without getting any version of the assigned text whatsoever.
And they’re also complaining. Students are looking for value in return for these high prices, and they don’t complain to the bookstore, they complain to the person who assigned the book. A theme I hear frequently among faculty is that they’re searching for classroom materials – including textbooks – that will reduce friction between teacher and student.
That friction is about more than just high prices. While traditional textbooks serve an important purpose – providing a narrative framework that leads students through a course of study – some of what they do can be achieved more effectively through other means, including lectures, articles, and videos. In addition, elements such as assessment tools, study questions, and primary documents that often now find themselves bundled with textbooks can probably best be handled in a Web environment. This gets to the disassembling of the traditional textbook, an option mentioned by Audrey Watters in discussing another recent entrant into the field, Inkling Habitat, the e-book publishing platform from iPad publisher Inkling.
A pdf of a text – the current form of most so-called e-textbooks – is not the answer, especially when it costs virtually the same as the print edition. We need a monumental shift in the textbook model to address the needs of students and professors. For my part, I think that the Web offers the most powerful and flexible platform for future classroom materials, because it so can so easily connect students to a wealth of primary sources, analysis, and even real-time news, with pedagogical and workflow tools built in. All due respect to Apple, increasing learning outcomes does not require fancy software and 3D graphics (or $500 gadgets). All that’s required is to provide educators with better, more flexible materials and tools, ones that are affordable for students.
And by the way, these new models are out there. Inspired faculty are building them for themselves, and upstart publishers with no revenue legacy to protect are creating them for other faculty to adopt. I humbly offer our own Milestone Documents as one such example. One metric we pay special attention to among the classes that adopt our site is the percentage of enrolled students who sign up. It’s a lot higher than 59%. Our platform is still young, with many useful features still to come, but this tells me that we are on the right path, and that the students using the site are pleased with the value we are providing.
If our site is any indication, these new models are developing a loyal following. Nonetheless, change in the larger industry isn’t occurring fast enough for students. It’s time to abandon suspicion of change and listen to what students – and educators – are saying. It’s time to deliver real value.