The Banality of Textbooks

Cross-posted on Inside Higher Ed

There have been at least three textbook-related announcements this week – and hey, it’s only Wednesday. The news: Amazon now offers textbook rentals. Digital textbook app-maker Kno enters the K–12 market, offering digital Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt textbooks for parents (note: not schools) to rent. And the free digital textbook startup Boundless opens its doors to the public.

Of course, we’re well into back-to-school season, so the timing of these (and all sorts of) edu-announcements isn’t all that surprising. Nor, I suppose, is the news itself:

With its new service, Amazon, the company arguably most associated with buying books online, takes on Chegg, arguably the company most associated with college textbook rentals. Both companies have the massive warehouse infrastructure necessary to store and ship textbooks to students. That Amazon has added the rental option here is, in its words, “yet another great option for saving money.” While it’s debatable that renting is actually much of a money-saver, being the “one-stop shop” that students turn to is something that both these companies want – for all shopping needs in the case of Amazon, and with Chegg’s recent acquisitions, for all students’ tutoring, note-buying, and course-calendaring needs.

That tension between appealing specifically to the edu market versus a more general consumer market seems to be at the heart of the Kno news too. Expanding its offerings to include the K–12 market might make sense for Kno as its app needs to compete with the iTextbook app unveiled by Apple earlier this year. I’m not sure how many parents will opt to rent textbooks this way, but the new logo unveiled by Kno certainly suggests the company is appealing to the “backpacks are so heavy” argument that’s pro-digital and anti-print. $9.99 to rent from Kno for a year, or a max of $15 to buy a one-year license for a digital textbook via iTunes…

Or there’s the option for free textbooks. That’s (part of) the promise of OER, and “free and open” is how Boundless is branding itself. The startup came onto the scene earlier this year with news that it was being sued for copyright infringement by 3 of the major players in the publishing industry. Boundless has filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, and by launching to the public today, the startup maintains it is ready to fight rather than wilt under the legal pressures it contends are aimed at “stifling innovation from edtech startups like ours.”

But what exactly are these innovations? Is the innovation simply a matter of cost? That’s the thrust of all three of these textbook announcements this week – Amazon, Kno, and Boundless all say they’re tackling the high cost of textbooks and by extension the traditional textbook market.

Or is the innovation here a matter of enabling digital enhancements? That’s certainly what Kno offers with supplemental note-taking and quizzing features that it claims improve the reading, studying, and learning experience beyond what the printed version can offer.

Or is it providing an alternative to textbooks altogether, demonstrating that you can pull together resources from a variety of openly licensed websites and repackage them into something that looks textbook-ish but that is unencumbered by the processes of academic peer-review, political machinations, and the publishing industry’s financial interests? Clearly some of those processes have led to a world where, among other things, textbooks are exhorbitantly priced. But I do worry that in a quest to “disrupt the textbook industry,” that we’ll chase cost-savings at all costs – particularly the expense of quality content. Because while I do applaud Boundless’s efforts to save students some money, it’s hardly impressive to see that the OER that they’re “curating” is mostly just a bunch of Wikipedia entries. (Something that begs the question: What is the purpose of textbooks?)

As such this week’s textbook-related news seems pretty ordinary (um, to say the least). Are we (or am I) just weary of all the promises of industry disruption? Or are there other forces at play here?



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