Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seth Godin vs. the Textbook Industry

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin took the textbook industry to the woodshed ("Textbook Rant"). I have a couple of points of disagreement, but overall I think most of his analysis was spot-on and highlights some of the paradigms about education that need to change.
  • My first point of disagreement was his assumption that marketing textbooks are representative of textbooks in general - I don't necessarily think that's the case. Some fields (like marketing) are more malleable (for lack of a better word) than others (like algebra). Compared to algebra, marketing is somewhat newer and is inherently more subjective in nature. Moreover, while there are always new developments in mathematics, they don't happen as rapidly as those in fields like marketing.
  • My second point of disagreement is that I think Seth tends to interact with self-directed, high-achieving individuals who function very well independent of the traditional academic system. For the majority of students, the approach most textbooks take tends to be more effective because they have a bit more difficulty following the more esoteric references or directing their own activities/exercises to reinforce the material.
That said, however, he's right: textbooks are too expensive, lack an innovative spirit, do too little to inspire students about a particular topic, and are impractical. This is why so many faculty rely heavily on coursepacks (or even multiple texts for a single course).

That's partially due to the industrial design of our [now-outmoded] education system, and it's partially due to the constraints of having to aim for a very broad audience (which limits how creative one can be in the presentation of subject matter). It takes a long time to put together a textbook because the text is only a small portion of the whole job. I would wager nearly half of the work involved in a textbook goes to producing the host of tools, assessments, guides, and other materials for use in the class which reinforce the material and help faculty assess the progress of the students in retaining and applying the material.

These realities don't excuse textbook manufacturers from their culpability, however. They could be innovating, but they're not because they've hit upon a lucrative way of doing business and have grown complacent ... which means it's right about time for someone innovative to come along and upend their business model and run them out of circulation.

As Godin notes, one could imagine the model of textbooks moving completely away to exhaustive, one-time paper texts and toward a constantly-evolving web-based model that is updated/maintained by a collaborative of faculty and experts (I would say even students would bring some valuable insights to the process).

Unfortunately I don't think it's as simple as Godin suggests. A cursory glance at the debate raging over where scholarly research should be published hints at the unseen complications that exist. Here are a few I can see (and some possible solutions):
  • The first barrier will be the publishing industry (which includes some academic institutions that have their own publishing houses) which won't go down without a fight. Similar to the music industry's reaction to file-sharing - they'll likely try to maintain their monopoly by suing or lobbying their competition out of existence (a lawsuit from a single intellectual property violation could decimate a start-up venture). They're also not above bribing faculty in the same way drug companies schmooze health professionals.
    [Solution: have a powerful academic institution house the effort so that it could fight off vexatious lawsuits.]

  • Second, though many engaged faculty would leap at the model he suggests (of cobbling together a customized text from crowdsourced "chapterettes"), there are a lot of more complacent faculty who won't be interested in assembling their own text (or in doing it for free, as many receive a slice of the profits from textbooks).
    [Solution: Make the platform user-friendly and compatible with enterprise content management systems like Oracle/PeopleSoft and Blackboard.]

  • Third, it may also be difficult to find people to do the less fun tasks associated with producing textbooks (like creating the test banks of questions, exercises, classroom activities, lecture guides, etc.) which is what makes the traditional model appealing to over-worked faculty looking to outsource as much of the labor associated with teaching a class as possible.
    [Solution: If a prestigious academic institution backed this effort, one could appeal to creators by allowing them to associate themselves with that institution.]
  • Fourth, someone also needs to create the platform or build the network that would enable enough creators to gather together to create enough content to make the system viable.
Fortunately I think the wired world is up to the task, and it's only a matter of time.

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