The Coming E-Publishing Revolution in Higher Education
November 24, 2012 | 2:30 pm
By Dr. Frank Lowney
Editor’s note: Those of you who read TeleRead regularly are probably well aware of the fact that Dr. Frank Lowney has been a staple in our comments section for quite some time now. Because of those comments, it was quite clear to me, long before I actually knew anything about Dr. Lowney or his work, that he was something of an expert in the academic publishing space.
I emailed Dr. Lowney out of blue one day back back in September, asking if he’d be interested in contributing a post to TeleRead about the current state of the textbook market. In his reply, he told me about The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education, an interactive e-textbook he was in the process of writing. We both agreed that a article explaining the book’s main thesis would make a great addition to TeleRead’s archive of textbook-related content. That post begins below, following Dr. Lowney’s brief introduction, which explains how and why the book came about in the first place.
The title of my recently-published book is The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education, and it’s only readable on an iPad, because it was created with iBooks Author. Why would anyone restrict their audience that severely? Let me try to explain:
Firstly, everything is a trade-off. If you think that your message really requires a certain format, you accept the consequences, and that is the case here. I develop the premise that an individual subject matter expert can create a rich, interactive e-textbook that is competitive with commercial offerings, and at such low cost that it can be offered to students for free or at very little cost.
I wanted to do more than simply make the claim and try to support it with theory. I wanted the book to be an example, or a proof of concept, if you will. Secondly, my target audience is comprised of the people who influence or make decisions in higher education. These folks either already have an iPad or can easily obtain one for the occasion. Almost every institution of higher education in the U.S. today is at least experimenting with iPads and other mobile devices as educational tools. This is also congruent with the fact that the book is only $0.99. It wasn’t written to generate income; it was written to instigate thought, discussion and debate within these particular circles.
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In The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education, I start out by reviewing the relationships that evolved in higher education during the print era. In the 500 or so years since Gutenberg, academics have managed to create and refine a system that overcomes the cost burden of print technology. Higher education needs textbooks, journal articles and scholarly books. Much of this work, especially journal articles, is uncompensated.
The genius of this scheme is seen in the promotion and tenure process, and the fact that it has been outsourced to the very commercial entities who publish these printed resources and profit from these free and inexpensive inputs. Promotion and tenure translate to higher salaries, security and prestige in higher education; they are every bit a form of currency. This symbiosis of publisher, subject matter expert and institution of higher education was very effective. Unfortunately for students, funding this scheme fell to or on them. They had to buy the adopted and assigned textbook. The academic library had to subscribe to the journals that students would need to carry out professor-assigned work. Today, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, textbooks can cost as much as 26 percent of tuition at state universities and 72 percent of tuition at community colleges.
Enter the digital era and, with it, the promise of a better way of doing things—a way that doesn’t exploit students. Through a series of screencast videos, I survey the formats (EPUB and iBooks primarily), the e-readers that are freely available, the more accessible e-book creation tools, and the many ways these digital publications can be distributed at little or no cost to students. This establishes the feasibility of dis-intermediating the academic publishing industry. The tools to do that are in hand. With student debt nearing a trillion dollars and threatening to be the next economic bubble to burst, understanding and fixing this problem is much more than just a nice thing to do for students.
This sets the stage for contention between the established commercial publishers of academic works and the new alternatives that have arisen in the digital era. Those born digital alternatives are unconstrained by the capital intensive nature of print: They need no printing plants, no warehouses, no fleets of delivery trucks and no bookstores. They need only subject matter expertise and the desire to propagate human knowledge and understanding. Thus, we recognize the technical and economic viability of individual subject matter experts competing as peers with commercial academic publishers at significantly lower price points—even zero. On the other hand, not all of the factors of production have been eliminated; there is still that economic system where commercial publishers validate academic work, which is the currency of the promotion and tenure system. Without commercial academic publishers, that very elaborate process will have to be replaced with something at least as effective.
Some academic publishers, new and old (Bookboon and Flat World for example), are trying to head this off at the pass with variations on the traditional theme. However, the fundamental problem with textbook pricing persists, and many commercial academic publishers are content to ride this horse until it collapses. That problem is the inelasticity of demand for textbooks; some have termed it a “broken” market. Inelastic demand is where increases in price are not met with commensurate decreases in demand. The cause of inelastic demand in the case of textbooks is the fact that the people who select the textbooks (professors) are not the ones paying for them; students and their parents pay. Financial aid defers the pain, but ultimately increases it with interest. A similar situation exists for prescription medications.
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There certainly will be a revolution in academic publishing. Print will be eclipsed by digital. The more interesting and important revolution, however, will be how this actually happens. Will the intermediation of commercial academic publishers continue, or will they be dis-intermediated by new alignments between subject matter experts and the institutions that customarily employ them to perform some mix of teaching, research and service? The outcome is not at all certain.
What outcome should we root for and work toward? My opinion is that commercial academic publishers have failed to address the broken markets for e-textbooks, scholarly e-books and e-journals. It is also apparent to me that they are unlikely to do so in the near future. Promising innovations such as Flat World are beginning to fray. Recently, Flat World announced that it will no longer be offering e-textbooks online for free, as it has since its inception. This means that the student debt crisis will only grow worse, that the value of higher education will be questioned even more rigorously than now, and that our knowledge economy will be deprived of some of its most valuable inputs.
I am also not convinced that higher education leadership is up to the task of inventing a whole new system of academic e-publishing—one that would effectively dis-intermediate the academic publishing enterprise by bringing it all in-house. In The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education, I try to show how this could be done, but others will likely do better than I. The point is not to predict the exact winning recipe, but to establish the fact that higher education has the requisite leadership, traditions, skills and resources to meet this challenge. It will not be easy. State funding is on the decline, and competing alternatives to higher education (MOOCs, for-profit education, corporate certification, etc.) are on the rise.
I am rooting for dis-intermediation because I think it’s the only way we’re going to see the broken market for academic works repaired. My hope is that my interactive iBook will add to the rising chorus in support of radical change in the ways that knowledge is propagated by higher education—change that will benefit society in general and students in particular.
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The copyright for The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education is CC BY-NC-SA. Consistent with the ‘SA’ or ‘share alike’ aspect of that copyright, the book has no DRM. There are numerous videos, graphics and interactive widgets included. It can be read only with iBooks 3.0 or later on an iPad running iOS 5.1 or later. The current version of this iBook is 1.0. An iBook is upgradable, just like software, and version 1.0.1 is currently in the planning stages.
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About the Author:
Dr. Frank Lowney is currently associated with the Georgia Digital Innovation Group, a collaborative initiative of the University System of Georgia and Georgia College & State University. He resides in Gray, Ga., where he and his wife, Olga, pursue a variety of interests including antiques, gardening, computer graphics and multimedia. Frank began the GC EduNET Project, an online K-12 outreach project, in 1988, and has been active in exploring how Internet protocols might be used to pursue educational goals and objectives ever since. In his current position, Frank works with faculty, staff, students and external agencies to develop, maintain and find ever more innovative uses for computers, software and networks dedicated to the production and deployment of both standard and experimental educational applications. To learn more, visit his website or his blog.
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