When will paper textbooks go away?
Never. Yes, I say this despite the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education stating “Textbooks are dead” last October (2014). In my defence, I can point to South Korea, who (back in 2011) declared they would go fully digital on texts by 2015 - only to back off, in part due to concerns over research about how screen time might affect brain development. And it HAS been shown (in an Israeli study) that those reading on a screen (versus from print) will perform worse in a scenario of timed comprehension - even though they thought they performed better. But wait. Notice I didn’t say paper textbooks would remain dominant. The textbook industry does need to adapt. Let’s have a look at that.
Since 1978, the price of college textbooks has risen more than 800 percent (and DO see that link for the comparison graph). In other words, a text that cost $25 over thirty years ago would now cost more than $225 (new). How can the industry get away with this? Partly because, owing to consolidation, 5 textbook companies now own more than 80 percent of the publishing market. So there isn’t a lot of competition. It also helps that this is a market where the consumers (the students) don’t get a say in the product they have to purchase. (Or do they? More on this later.) But here’s the thing, NO ONE has money for textbooks right now. Even in public education, school budgets are being slashed to lower your taxes, meaning older textbooks cannot be replaced (see also: street potholes). It’s probably even worse than you think - for instance, schools can supplement income with cafeteria sales, but now that all choices are (mandated to be) healthy, students are crossing the road to eat at McDonalds instead. It’s 2015, and I teach a Grade 12 course out of a textbook published in 2003 because THAT is REALITY.
So the first fix involves those unsustainable prices. The second item is more a need to adjust for the slow pace of the education industry. In a prior column, “Getting Graphic”, I noted that “huge technology upgrades are only possible every six or seven years, if that”. It’s largely due to money. But a slow pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing; these are your children we’re talking about. A new drug needs to undergo rigorous testing before being put on the market, otherwise someone gets sued. Yet (it seems to me) that someone can come up with a new education idea, write a book about it, and try to implement it immediately. If it doesn’t work right away? Okay, sorry about your kid’s education, we’ll try someone else’s idea next year. Seriously? (Incidentally, that is not an attack on things like common core, which involved years of research.) So yes, education is perhaps a couple beats behind the mainstream - that’s not something to attack, merely something to remember. There is still a need for paper texts in education even after a majority of society has “gone digital”... which, granted, is coming up fast, if it’s not already here.
Future of Textbooks
So where are we headed? Let’s take a moment to look at where we’ve been. From a look in the book room at my school, a Grade 9 math textbook from 1986 had 11 chapters, and about 450 pages. The format was a page of explanation, a page of exercises, repeat. It contained an occasional black and white (or red-tinted) image. A Grade 9 math textbook from 1999 had 11 chapters, and about 660 pages. The format was 3-4 pages of explanation and examples, then 3-4 pages of exercises. I would say there is only a 25% chance that you would open the book and NOT immediately see a full colour graphic. Our Grade 9 math textbook from 2008 has 8 chapters, and about 620 pages. The format is 4-6 pages of explanation and examples, then 3-4 pages of exercises. There is a huge margin around the perimeter of each page to drop in pictures, or to highlight key terms (otherwise it’s left blank). What do we conclude? That the trend is towards increased examples and visuals. I do question how seeing a picture of someone skiing is more likely to prompt answering a question about “slope”, but one hopes there’s some science behind it.
Looking forwards, the nice thing about an online/digital version of such a text is that the graphics can be made dynamic. They can allow for self-exploration of concepts, rather than simply accepting them on faith (or believing in them because of the smiling photo in the margin). But here we run into a problem - any company can potentially put something like this together, given the right materials. How do you stand out in a crowd? Well, most of the industry seems to have decided that metrics are the way to go, and wow, does this feel like a bad decision! “We must time how long the student spent reading page 3! How often they attempted problem 1.6!” and so on. No. First, we really don’t. While a generalized study might be good (for instance, to see if screen reading really is inferior to print), such data is meaningless without an individual baseline, or any idea for how to apply it. And I don't see us there yet. Second, educators are swamped with extra work as it is, they don’t have time to pore over the metrics of 90 individual students. Finally, putting more effort here feels like it’s taking away from the more dynamic possibilities mentioned above, turning exploration into more of a “hide and reveal” exercise.
Recently, there’s one more issue at play. Post-secondary students are taking more of a stance with regard to the notion of “having” to buy a textbook. A US study conducted in Fall 2013 reported that 65% of university students decided against buying a textbook - even though 94% were somewhat or significantly concerned that this decision might affect their performance. The same study showed that the high cost of textbooks could even affect student course selection. (Aside: John Oliver has a piece, not about textbooks, but about student debt, which looks at for profit schools. See “no one has money”, above.) But there are alternatives to straight defiance, those being: buying used books, the use of an open textbook (one freely available online), piracy (it does exist) - and textbook rental. An opinion article in Forbes claims that low cost rentals are the real industry disruptor, even ahead of digital. There may be something to that.
Because here’s the last piece of the puzzle: Even now, not everyone can afford the technology to view an online textbook. They have to go with a (rented?) print version - or not at all. There’s also a case to be made for the visually impaired student, who uses a text in braille (incidentally 8 times the size of a regular math book). Or other students with exceptionalities, perhaps who experience trouble with focus when it comes to online reading. THIS is why I do not see the paper textbook vanishing. Ever. If it does, I foresee a backlash once more research has been completed into reading from electronic screens. Yet, even so, the textbook industry needs to adjust. And I fear it’s not adapting as well as others believe. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
For further viewing:
1. 2 Perspectives on the Future of College Textbooks
2. Forget the Future: Here’s the Textbook I Want Now
3. Google Interviews Students: The Future of College Textbooks (video)
Got an idea or a question for a future TANDQ column? Let me know in the comments, or through email!