Digital textbooks have publishers turning the page on high tech
N.J. companies investing in e-books despite slow adoption rate
Classroom textbooks have been available in digital formats for years, but the big changes publishers are now confronting come from how interactive and adaptive the materials are for students and professors alike. But high costs of the technology needed to use these bells and whistles is part of a package of challenges preventing e-textbooks from being adopted as swiftly as expected.
At John Wiley & Sons, in Hoboken, keeping up has meant expanding the
editorial department to include not only the traditional content creators and
editors, but also tech-savvy professionals who design additional "learning assets" to complement the material, said
Lisa Bulhane, director of program
development in the company's global education business unit. Those learning assets include videos, links to websites, audio clips and assessments students
can complete while reading.
"That's a new capability, and we certainly have a lot more people with technology backgrounds working alongside the traditional publishing folks, who really know pedagogy and are really looking at creating content that works in a classroom setting," Bulhane said.
Wiley also has given iPads to its salespeople, so they can show professors how to interact with e-books and increase the comfort level with the new technology.
"There's the course need, the subject area needs, as well as the propensities
of the professors or a group of instruc-
tors as to what they decide to use," Bulhane said. "Our sales force has to be increasingly nimble to be able to think about what is going to work best for
that course and that instructor."
Publishers like Wiley, McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education are creating platforms to deliver digital learning content in an affordable and convenient way. Pearson, also in Hoboken, has worked with Ramsey-based All Things Media to develop online learning modules for several years, and is now working with the company to create a prototype of a digital textbook.
Ben Spierenburg, project manager for All Things Media, said Pearson has grown its e-book strategy with technology, and the platform currently being created is the most cost-effective way to deliver digital content with text — through the web and applications.
Spierenburg said All Things Media has updated the applications it created for Pearson to use HTML5 instead of Flash, which is not supported by Apple Inc.'s devices. These updated apps will now be integrated into the Pearson e-textbooks, and are accessed by clicking a link within the text.
But while e-textbooks are a major focus for McGraw-Hill, Tim Peyton, senior director of higher education learning solutions for the company — which has a corporate office in East Windsor — said they comprise a relatively small percentage of the company's sales. That's because prices for the products have not come down fast enough to encourage rapid adoption. Peyton said royalty contracts with authors have similar rates, whether the product ends up in print or digital form.
"If we can deliver digital at a lower price point, that is something that not just the students care about," Bulhane said. "Increasingly, instructors want to be able to give their students what they need to succeed in the class at a price that is acceptable."
Peyton also said slow adoption rates can also be attributed to the fact that early versions of e-books didn't offer enough added value to encourage people to make the switch; new tools like the ability to highlight and bookmark pages of text are making the transition more tolerable.
McGraw-Hill also is working on a way to sell e-books through school bookstores, which would allow students to use scholarships to pay for them the way they pay for print books. Peyton said the University of Minnesota has been leading the way in creating the infrastructure for that to happen, and Indiana University is well on its way to making e-textbooks available to the entire faculty.
"We can't walk away from the fact that if the content doesn't work for the course and it doesn't work for the instructor, it doesn't matter how many bells and whistles you have — it's not going to work for them," Bulhane said.
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