There's been a bit of an uproar over Pearson's announcement that they are switching entirely to a digital-first model and will be updating their editions more frequently as a result.1 The prevailing take in the media write-ups so far has been fear of increasing prices. I'm not doing as much of that sort of analysis as I used to anymore. As usual, if you want a clear write-up of it, a good place to check is with PhilonEdTech. I do have a somewhat different take on the economics than the current hand-wringing would suggest and will use a graph from Phil's post to make a brief point about it. The middle of this post will be about the difference between print and digital and how that drives different reasons for updating an "edition." And the last part will be about drawing larger lessons from the tendency in ed tech to tell stories that are more based on past traumas than analysis of current situations.
The horse is out of the barn on pricing
Phil's post contains this graph showing the publishers' competition with other sources for textbook rentals:
The textbook publishers have a lot to gain by controlling the distribution channel for their products. If they can cut out Amazon and Chegg, then they can get a larger percentage of each sale. So they definitely have a lot to gain economically from this.
But I don't get the sense that any of the major publishers believe they can raise prices again. They all read the OER faculty attitude surveys very carefully. The prevailing sense in the industry is that, in addition to the strong price sensitivity and ingenuity that has existed among students for some time, there is now increasing price awareness and sensitivity among academics that is not going away. I don't think this is about that.
In fact, while there are immediate economic reasons for publishers to make this move—if remember correctly, McGraw Hill made the same move a while ago—there are also product-related reasons for doing so.
Analog vs digital updates
Many folks in the sector have a reflex reaction to the phrase "textbook edition" based on the old print tradition of updating a book every three years whether it needed updating or not. In some subjects, a three-year update is warranted. Programming languages change, for example. Linear algebra, on the other hand? Not so much. Textbook publishers gained a somewhat justified reputation for updating books every three years just to thwart the used book market. Which they then reinforced by raising prices every year, driving students to the used book market and giving publishers further incentives to update editions for purely economic reasons.
That said, in the digital world, there are legitimate reasons for product updates that don't exist with a print textbook. First, you can actually get good data about whether your content is working so that you can make non-arbitrary improvements. I'm not talking about the sort of fancy machine learning algorithms that seem to be making some folks nervous these days. I'm talking about basic psychometric assessment measures that have been used since before digital but are really hard to gather data on at scale for an analog textbook—how hard are my test questions, and are any of the distractors obviously wrong?—and page analytics on the level that's not much more sophisticated that I use for this blog—is anybody even reading that lesson? Lumen Learning's RISE framework is a good, easy-to-understand example of the level of analysis that can be used to continuously improve content in a ho-hum, non-creepy, completely uncontroversial way.
(I stress this because there's been an elevated level of concern about intrusive analytics among a segment of the e-Literate readership and I want to be clear that one can do quite a bit without coming anywhere near the touchy areas.)
At the same time, unlike paper books, digital products have functionality, and there is always a continuous list of features that students and teachers want or need. Just keeping up with accessibility requirements is a never-ending job. Then, instructors in different subjects want different quiz question types. Or the ability to author those question types. Or different configurations on the number of tries that students can have for the questions. Or the number of hints they can have. Or integration with some discipline-specific tool that they like to use. Or a tool that the students like to use. It goes on and on and on.
Are all of these updates good updates? That's an impossible generalization to make. People who have no use for a software product category in the first place generally tend to think that the updates to a pointless product are pointless. So if you're already cynical about courseware, you'll probably be cynical about courseware functionality updates. If you find courseware useful, then your attitude will be closer to that of any other software user, which is to say that you'll look at whether the particular update fits your need. Since functionality in courseware platform often is differentially useful across disciplines, chances are that you will like some updates a lot and find others completely uninteresting (or even a step backwards for your particular needs). If you are a builder of digital platforms that need to support a wide range of academic disciplines, as Pearson now is, you have a lot of surface area that you have to cover. Hence the need for frequent updates.
Ed tech news cycles often feel like fighting the last war to me. We're always building our Maginot Line. Some vendor does something, and everybody rushes to write the hand-wringing story about how this might be just like the last disaster. The last trauma. Nobody asks, "What's changed since then?"
Analogously to default story trope with the LMS vendors, the default story tropes about the publishers all come from past traumas about pricing and don't take into account how the economics of the industry have changed completely in the last decade, or how going from print to digital changes what it even means to update an edition.
Nor do these trauma stories take into account what is changeable. They are typically written as if vendors are implacable forces of nature or all-powerful multi-national corporations. Pearson, one of the largest companies in the sector, is just 2.5% the size of Exxon Mobil. Even assuming the worst regarding the intent of the company management, the industry could not have maintained such high price points if faculty had simply started to select books based on price. Vendors respond to the signals customers send about what matters to them.
Faculty had the power to change the industry. Whether knowingly or not, they chose not to exercise it. They chose not to even ask about the price in the majority of cases for many, many years. This is not to let companies off the hook for their decisions but rather to say that when we choose to retell trauma stories without interrogating them, we may miss opportunities to choose to play roles other than victims. And if you are going to choose to have a relationship with a vendor, why wouldn't you choose for that relationship to be something other than victim?
Five years ago, I wrote a post about how people who complained bitterly about how unhappy they were with their LMS vendors tended to ignore the procurement practices of their colleagues and their institution that all but guaranteed their dissatisfaction. That post was called Dammit, the LMS. It received quite a bit of attention. Even people who hated it admitted to me that they thought it was correct.
Sadly, not much has changed since then.
- Full disclosure: Pearson is both a current sponsor of the Empirical Educator Project and a current consulting client. [↩]