Growing up in a poor country was not a cool experience for me. But now that I live in a rich country, I am often intrigued by the perspective that my childhood gave me.
Take textbooks, which are pretty rare in many Cuban schools. Students often share them, passing them along as relics. (They can’t photocopy them, given the government’s dislike for all means of dissemination of information and its subsequent ban on the purchase of these devices). In fact, many professors do without books altogether, relying on handouts, scribbling long tirades on the blackboard and demanding that students take page after page of notes.
This was a very different experience from the one I lived at UTM, where failure to buy a required textbook can be a bad idea. Professors expect all students to get them, and in fact, base their entire curriculum around a specific textbook, which can change from year to year.
This has, of course, created quite an important market, one that can force students to spend up to $900 per year on textbooks, the prices of which have increased four times the rate of inflation over the past decade, according to a 2005 Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) study.
Sadly for us students, the textbook market does not operate according to the same economic principles as a normal consumer market. The faculty chooses the product but do not buy it, while the students, who use the product, do not have the option of choosing it. The price is thus removed from the purchasing decision, which results in textbook publishers enjoying of a disproportionate market power to set prices in a market already affected by a serious lack of competition.
As for photocopying, students in Canada do have the machines at their disposal, but they too face restrictions to unrestrained photocopying of their books (albeit for different reasons than in Communist regimes). Thus, many of us came to rely on tusbe.com, that incredibly useful site that allows us to buy and resell textbooks without having to pay a commission.
Yet there is hope—and not too far down the road. A solution to the textbook problem may come in a few years, in the shape of Apple’s shiny new iPad and the flood of market-changing devices that it touts. There has been much talk about how these devices will change the publishing landscape, with readers foregoing printed magazines or books in favour of their electronic equivalents. Whether most consumers will actually pay for these books is a matter of debate—witness what happened with the music market. I know people who’ve listened to a lot of music over the last few years, but did not pay for any of it.
Publishing houses probably fear that the same will happen to them. On the other hand, they have probably learned the lesson that the music industry paid for so dearly: fighting technology and attempting to punish distributors of illegally downloaded material is sure to backfire on them, alienating consumers and diminishing their willingness to pay high prices for the same content they can get free elsewhere.
This is probably why software company ScrollMotion announced that it will develop iPad-friendly versions of textbooks for education publishers like McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin and Kaplan only a week after the iPad launched. Features that may make it into the iPad textbooks include video, interactive quizzes, the ability to record lectures, highlight and search text and take notes.
For those who doubt that the iPad will sell, thinking it just an overblown iPod, there are other options, such as the dual-screen enTourage eDge, which has also entered into deals with publishers to create digital textbooks. The eDge has a 9.7-inch e-ink screen on one side for reading and a 10.1-inch LCD screen that accepts stylus inputs for handwriting (something the iPad lacks).
Digital textbooks are admittedly nothing new. McGraw Hill, Pearson and other textbook publishers already support CourseSmart, a provider of college textbooks in eTextbook format on a common online platform. CourseSmart offers eTextbook versions of college textbooks at a cost of 50% less than the print versions of the same titles. The company currently sells more than a third of all college textbooks in online format.
Digital books, however, have so far lacked the ideal medium. Reading a CourseSmart book on an iPhone screen will likely induce more headaches than just paying for a regular textbook would. The new tablets will change this with their bigger screens. And even if they didn’t hold the promise of lower textbook prices, they will still make things easier for students, allowing them to search for and bookmark text and highlight it in different colours. Students will also be able to write notes or use a built-in microphone to record audio notes, all while carrying dozens of textbooks into one slim tablet. They will also be able to take interactive quizzes and track their right and wrong answers on the device.
Pessimists will bet that publishing companies will refuse to significantly lower prices for electronic versions of textbooks. But textbooks companies would better tread carefully: students are a tech-savvy, irreverent lot, one that has only put up with the high costs of textbooks because they lacked the technological means to fight it. Once given access to an electronic version of a textbook, they will likely find a way to unlock whatever DRM protection is slapped to it. Alternately, it will only take one scanned copy of a textbook, saved as a PDF file, to spread from tablet to tablet with a vengeance.
So, ironically, the future of textbooks in North America may look a bit like the past in poorer countries: one student will get a hold of a copy and give it to all of his or her classmates. And they won’t have to transcribe it—pushing a button will do.