February 20, 2012
Although its name is not well known, Cengage is one of the firms that, along with Pearson and McGraw-Hill, form the Triad that dominates college textbook publishing. Recently Cengage announced that they’ve transitioned from being a viable company with a vision for the future, to becoming a massive anti-capitalist prank: Cengage has pulled all their content from e-textbook distributor Kno.
According to Mashable, Cengage terminated their contract because Kno enables students to produce a study sheet excerpting passages from the textbook. Apparently Cengage views study sheets as derivative works and considers this a copyright violation. Never mind that every student who uses the feature has already bought the text, so there is no potential for lost sales. Never mind that it actually makes their textbooks more valuable to students.
While Cengage may be within their legal rights to pull their content, it’s an absolutely crazy thing to do. This is Kno’s reward for trying to pull Cengage into the 21st century.
Instant study sheets are a patently obvious feature for an online textbook reader—it’s one of the killer benefits that a print book just cannot match. And that’s the problem: legacy publishers only pay lip service to digital textbooks. They’re fine with them as long as they’re overpriced, missing compelling features, and don’t threaten the publishers’ print textbook hegemony.
If you’re working with the legacy publishers, you’re just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. At Eleven Learning, we’re not trying to fix the textbook publishing industry. We’re blowing it up and starting over.
January 26, 2012
Last Thursday Apple announced a big textbook initiative. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the major products are:
- iBooks 2, a K-12 e-textbook store (Apple is shacking up with the Legacy Publishers.)
- iBooks Author, an application for writing interactive textbooks
Those looking for more detail should consult AllThingsD’s liveblogging of the event.
We hadn’t intended to weigh in on this topic; so much has already been written, and we were fine with sitting out the PR battle. But last night I was at a meetup where over a dozen people asked for our thoughts, and I decided it’d be simpler if I just wrote them down here. So here we go.
The mainstream press is wrong: Apple is not ‘throwing out the rulebook’.
There is a compelling narrative that’s repeatedly employed the mainstream press: “Tech people are smart. Old Industry people are dumb and slow. Tech people will blow up Old Industry.” Amazingly, this story works even when the tech company is partnering with the incumbents, as is the case here.
Apple’s presentation was fantastic: it was full of simple, plausible, appealing statements that help tell a great story, but fall down under analysis. Exhibit A:
The mainstream press is right: This is going to be huge because, hey, it’s Apple.
This announcement sucks the oxygen out of the room. From now on, Apple factors into every conversation about the future of textbooks. Companies without sufficient differentiation are toast.
Sure, there are tons of e-textbook stores out there, and iBooks is a me-too product. But it’s the slickest me-too product around. Apple’s presence will weed out the weak players and elevate the game of those that remain.
The edtech press is disappointed, but only because expectations were so high.
Audrey Watters has written an excellent—and very thorough, if not quite Unabomber-length—blog post dissecting the announcement. Her take: “What was missing was vision, ambition, ‘this changes everything.’”
Educators’ criticisms are valid—the $15 price point is a Kafkaesque joke; the reader is gorgeous but oddly lacking in social features; the EULA for iBooks Author is an abomination; and much of this looks uncomfortably like a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990s—but that doesn’t change the fact that these are solid products. Apple has long been the education community’s favorite son, and the edtech press expected Apple to reveal novel insights and demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the space. Instead, they got the platitudes that the mainstream press adores.
Other firms that rely on the Legacy Publishers are scared.
The existing e-textbook storefronts attempted to get out in front of the story; in the days prior to the announcement, they acted as pundits, speculating about what Apple would release. The more that the iBooks bookstore encroached on their turf, the more distraught they were. (While iBooks textbooks are currently only for K-12, nobody is so naïve to think that Apple will remain there.) CourseSmart—a company that uses the word “Chillax” on its homepage without any sense of irony—issued a panicked, snarky press release titled “CourseSmart Welcomes Apple to the Party!”
What About Eleven Learning?
All companies, even ones as large as Apple, need to focus. In targeting the textbook space, Apple zeroed in on content creation and content consumption. In other words, the absolute beginning and end of the process. What’s missing is everything in between: editing, peer review, revisions, versioning, market awareness, adoption, and so on.
There are a few ways to handle the remaining tasks:
- Don’t do it. These books are doomed to only be used in the author’s own classroom.
- Spend a jillion dollars and do it the old-fashioned way, like the Legacy Publishers do. It’s been suggested that Apple’s app store approval team will vet the quality of textbooks. Depending on their sense of humor, educators will find this either hilarious or horrifying.
- Build tools that enable a community of academics to make their own superior materials. Wait, that’s what Eleven Learning does!
At Eleven Learning, our authors can write their books in our editing tools, or they can use Word, or LATEX, or heck, even iBooks Author. And students are welcome to read their textbooks in our Reader, or on a Kindle, or on a Nook, or, yes, in iBooks. Those aren’t our differentiators.
What separates Eleven Learning from everyone else is our laser focus on building a community that makes better content. That’s what we mean by “community-powered textbooks”, and it’s how we solve the Textbook Problem.
January 10, 2012
With the passing of Steve Jobs in 2011, there’s been much discussion of his famed Reality Distortion Field: his ability to convince others (and himself) of something through a mix of enthusiasm, bullying, and charismatic authority. Lots of companies attempt to conjure up their own RDF, but it’s only effective if the story has a kernel of truth to it—we have to want to believe it. Otherwise it’s just a big fat lie, and everyone sees right through it.
Check out these whoppers from the Legacy Textbook Publishers:
#1: They lie about prices
Many textbook sales reps cheerfully admit to telling professors the wholesale price the bookstore pays, not the retail price the student pays.
A couple of years ago the industry trade group bought the domain http://www.textbookfacts.org. (I won’t hyperlink to it because they let the domain expire, and someone’s turned it into a spam blog.) In it they justified the price of textbooks by noting that it was less than college students spent on cars. I’m not making this up.
And for decades, publishers have been lying about why their prices are high. As we noted in a previous post, publishers led everyone to believe that it was because of printing costs. While killing trees is a major expense when you’re selling $5 paperbacks, it’s a rounding error when you’re hawking $200 biology books. Now that students are demanding digital editions—and prices aren’t dropping—everyone is discovering the truth.
#2: They lie about being digital-ready
I once heard a Pearson exec speak at a conference. “Digital,” he proclaimed, “is not disruptive.” Well, I guess that’s true if you’re still a print-first shop, and you only make a digital edition after the fact. That’s why their online product look like a half-hearted conversion of the paper book, instead of something that takes advantage of the web.
Coursesmart, the online textbook outfit jointly owned by the big publishers, was originally a system to distribute free evaluation editions to professors (because the publishers were too cheap to mail physical books). It was never intended to be a way to distribute books to students, which explains why their electronic editions are so crippled.
#3: They lie about being open
A few months back the education press was abuzz with news about a Pearson / Google joint venture. The Chronicle’s headline was: Pearson and Google Jump Into Learning Management With a New, Free System.
There were two problems with this:
- The extent of Google’s involvement is that it’s available via their app marketplace. That’s it. Google went so far as to describe the announcement as “misleading”. They said, “It’s not a joint release, and it’s not a shared product.”
- Less blatant, but just as dishonest, is the product’s name: OpenClass. Pearson is attempting to hop on the ‘open’ bandwagon. After all, Open Educational Resource products that use the Creative Commons licenses (like, say, Eleven Learning) are in the news a lot these days. The problem is that, while Pearson’s product is free to use, it’s anything but open-source. This is yet another example of openwashing.
Pearson has been giving state education officials free trips to Rio, London, Helsinki, and Singapore. Here’s how it works: the Pearson Foundation—a tax-exempt 501(c)3 foundation that is forbidden from lobbying on behalf of Pearson Education—pays for the superintendents to attend these ‘idea exchanges’. Then a few months later, Pearson Education wins contracts, even though they’re not the low-cost bidder. Coincidence? That’s what the NY attorney general is figuring out.
I particularly enjoyed this quote from one attendee at the bacchanal in Australia:
“Everybody’s highlight of Canberra was to get to see the kangaroos.”
Why 2012 will not be like 2011
Us. Eleven Learning. The time is right for community-powered modular textbooks. They’re more interactive, more up-to-date, more flexible, and less expensive. By working with our authors and peer reviewers, we’re making it happen right now. Come join us.
November 11, 2011
It will come as no surprise that we at Eleven Learning like the number eleven. When we have our weekly meetings, we rate our progress on a scale from 1 to 11. It’s good silly fun. Heck, we named ourselves after a joke in a movie.
So when we looked at our calendars and realized that 11-11-11 was coming up, we suspected that this was a rare event: a quick consultation with a mathematician friend confirmed that it only happens once a century. Some folks in the Valley have declared it Nerd New Year and are throwing a block party.
A different 11-11-11 that happens every year is Veterans Day. (There is no apostrophe: ‘Veterans’ is attributive, not possessive.) Our government likes to mess with the dates of holidays so we can have long weekends. Veterans Day is important enough that it escapes this fate. Here’s why: in 1918, the First World War ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. After 1567 days, a conflict that killed somewhere between 1 and 3 percent of the planet’s population was finally over.
About a decade ago I was walking through a midsize college town on my way to a meeting. The churchbell started ringing on the hour, and I began to hurry because I was running late. But it didn’t stop ringing, and I realized that everything in the downtown area had. just. stopped.
For one minute.
Like many entrepreneurs, I’m blessed with a healthy ego, and I tend to look at a lot of things and think, “I could do that.” I have a ton of respect for the people who do things that I know I cannot. To them I wish a happy Veterans Day.
September 27, 2011
Eleven Learning has always been based out of Cambridge, but this has been a unique summer for us. We were invited to come to Palo Alto to take part in Imagine K12, a startup incubator focused on helping companies disrupt the educational system.
In case you weren’t familiar with the term, “disruption” is Silicon-Valley-speak for changing the world, winning hearts and minds, and generally being awesome. (Note that the actual definition of of “disruptive innovation” is a little more nuanced than that. As in, it has nothing to do with it.) If you think the textbook industry is behind the times, then perhaps a little disruption is a good idea.
What we did on our summer vacation
Moving out here wasn’t easy, but after much negotiation with our respective spouses, SOs and families, we flew out here and settle into a house in Sunnyvale, CA. The location has its positives, such as a quality farmers’ market down the street with some amazing produce.
As for our experience with Imagine K12: definitely amazing. Our new mentors constantly challenged us to sharpen our vision of a better way to make textbooks. We also came to meet with a host of ed-tech veterans and educational luminaries. Perhaps most valuable of all is the support we’ve received from the other IK12 startups, all of whom have stellar products that are doing great things in education. The summer culminated with Andrew speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt, the conference with the most exciting startups and technologists in the Valley. Our man presented in front of several hundred people (as well as a decent portion of the internet), and he made us proud.
What this means for you
It’s been a great summer for Eleven Learning, and that means it’ll be an even better fall for our authors, educators, and students. We’ve lined up some fantastic new ‘picobook’ short-form textbooks, we added tons of new features to our online reading application for students, and we totally revamped our peersourcing tools.
Check back in a couple of weeks for more updates on how we’re furiously building the future of textbooks.
August 25, 2011
I’ve never met Rob, so I only know him through his work (and through his colleagues at Xplana). Rob has been THE thought leader on topics such as the future of textbooks and learning management systems. My friends in edtech pass around his blog posts all the time. This is a real loss, and I hope he pops up somewhere else soon. And Rob, if you happen to read this, you’re always welcome to do a Guest Lecture post here!
A few months back, Rob made a video in which he laid out the future of the textbook industry far more clearly than I ever could. If you’re in tl;dr mode, the part about Eleven Learning starts 53 seconds in.
August 22, 2011
When I was growing up, my friend’s dad told him that the best part of having kids was naming them: it was all downhill from there.
I didn’t take many parenting lessons from that guy, but I’ll give him credit on this one. Naming stuff is a blast. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
How We Named Eleven Learning
We get asked this all the time. To everyone’s surprise, we spent much more time worrying about the second word than the first. We like ‘Learning’ a lot more than ‘Publishing’, ‘Education’, and the other words that legacy publishers use to brand themselves. Learning is something you do, not something that happens to you.
As for ‘Eleven’, that was easy. It’s one louder:
The new name for our short-form textbooks is…
When announced our intention to publish shorter, focused textbooks, we knew we’d need a quick way to describe them. That led us to set up a poll, and the feedback you gave us was fantastic. One educator pointed out that ‘razorbook’ was a very masculine name that might alienate half the planet’s population. That hadn’t crossed my mind: we were thinking of Occam’s Razor. ‘Razorbook’, for what it’s worth, came in dead last.
The winner-by-a-landslide is Picobooks. In the SI scale, the prefix pico- means something that’s 10-12 of a whole. (This is either one billionth or one trillionth, depending on whether or not you’re a native English speaker.) We’re saving ‘zeptobook’ and ‘yoctobook’ for our next project.
One thing we haven’t finalized is how to pronounce the name: is it “pie-ko” or “pea-ko”? (Off-topic: to my surprise, orange pekoe tea is pronounced “peck-o”.) This is a subject of much internal debate on our team—it’s me against everyone else—and the internet does not speak with one voice on this matter, either.
The Latest Naming Project
A few days ago I was speaking with someone who loved what we were doing but questioned why were still calling them ‘textbooks’. To her, textbooks are giant, static, linear, and print-only. And that’s not what picobooks are about at all. We just haven’t thought of something better: “Contextualized curriculum-driven learning objects” doesn’t roll off the tongue.
Anybody have any suggestions?