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 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.
September 30, 2010
Let’s start with a quote widely attributed to Otto von Bismarck:
The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night.
I like to have coffee with people from the traditional textbook publishing industry; they tell me stories about how screwed up their companies are. Here’s this week’s example:
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