The object formerly known as the textbook

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Textbook publishers argue that their newest digital products shouldn’t even be called “textbooks.” They’re really software programs built to deliver a mix of text, videos, and homework assignments. But delivering them is just the beginning. No old-school textbook was able to be customized for each student in the classroom. The books never graded the homework. And while they contain sample exam questions, they couldn’t administer the test themselves.

One publisher calls its products “personalized learning experiences,” another “courseware,” and one insists on using its own brand name, “MindTap.” For now, this new product could be called “the object formerly known as the textbook.”

“In the early days of TV, the first things you saw on TV were radio shows, and only over time did the next format evolve for that medium,” says Don Kilburn, chief executive of Pearson Learning Solutions. “I think we’re at that stage right now” with textbooks, he says.

Major publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years buying up software companies and building new digital divisions, betting that the future will bring an expanded role for publishers in higher education.

So far publishers produce only a limited number of titles in these born-digital formats, and the number of professors assigning them is relatively small. Only about 2 percent of textbooks sold at college bookstores are fully digital titles, according to a survey of 940 bookstores run by Follett Higher Education Group.

But if these new kinds of textbooks catch on, they raise questions about how much control publishers have over curriculum and the teaching process, as online education expands.

“It’s not a textbook, it is an entire course,” says Jean Wisuri, director of distance education at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, describing a product called Course360, from Cengage Learning. “It has activities built right into the textbook itself.”

A professor could essentially rely on a Course360 title as the full curriculum in an online course, letting students loose in the system and having them teach themselves. The Course360 titles connect to the university’s learning-management system, linking them directly into an institution’s existing virtual classroom.

But Ms. Wisuri says she is not worried about the software’s replacing professors. “The ‘course in the box,’ if you will, should only be a jumping-off point for faculty members,” she says. “Our faculty has the freedom to pick and choose what they want from the materials.”

As these “courses in a box” continue to improve, though, they could shift the professors’ role to be more like pilots on modern commercial planes, who let the autopilot do the flying except when they have to step in.

Colleges as Publishers?

Publishers aren’t the only organizations building this new kind of textbook. In a way, MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which many top colleges are experimenting with, offer the same mix of features without any involvement from a textbook publisher.

Those MOOCs are designed to teach unenrolled students free of charge, but colleges are also starting to try using MOOC content as a replacement for textbooks. It’s called “flipping” the classroom. Students are asked to view lecture videos and to do online exercises for homework, and then use class time for discussion or group projects. In that model, the “MOOC is the new textbook,” says David Finegold, senior vice president for lifelong learning and strategic growth at Rutgers University at New Brunswick.

“Instead of saying, ‘Go read a text,’ it will be, ‘Go do a MOOC,'” he says. “And we’re going to use our classroom sessions to help with that rather than to spend a lot of time lecturing.”

Amid all this change, the lines separating publisher, professor, university, and software company are blurring: The blockbuster textbooks of tomorrow could be produced not by publishers but directly by universities, maybe with the help of MOOC companies like Coursera or Udacity.

Publishers, though, say they aren’t worried about MOOCs’ eating into their business. “we view it as an opportunity much more than a threat,” says William D. Rieders, an executive vice president at Cengage Learning. Like several other publishers, Cengage has experimented with offering discounts on its titles to students taking free MOOCs.

And some colleges may end up hiring publishers to help them build MOOC content, say some publishing executives. “Some of these things in the coming learning applications are fairly expensive to produce,” says Mr. Kilburn, of Pearson. “Private companies have a lot of help that they can lend to that.”

Entering New Sectors

Publishers are also moving into new business sectors entirely.

In 2010, McGraw-Hill Education purchased Tegrity, a software company with a product that lets colleges automate the process of recording campus lectures and streaming them back to students on demand. The move supports a feature of the company’s new breed of textbooks, called McGraw-Hill Connect, which lets professors embed their own video lectures inside one of the company’s e-textbooks. That same year Macmillan, another major textbook publisher, entered a partnership with Panopto, a competing lecture-capture company.

In some cases, publishers are building new product divisions on their own. In 2011 Pearson made headlines by announcing that it would offer a free learning-management system to colleges called OpenClass. But while many colleges gave it a look, few have replaced their installations of Blackboard or other learning software with the publisher’s offering.

One way or another, the names of publishers are popping up more and more in announcements of new online-learning efforts.

This fall, when Rutgers announced plans to increase its online course offerings, officials revealed that they had selected Pearson as the university’s partner.

The deal had almost nothing to do with textbooks, though. Rutgers was mainly interested in eCollege, which Pearson purchased in 2007 for $477-million, and other support services the company now runs for online courses. The contract with Rutgers shows that the publisher has pushed into a different sector, playing a role more as a consultant and investor in colleges’ programs. Pearson and Rutgers will split the revenue from the online courses evenly during the first year; later Rutgers will get up to 65 percent.

And Pearson isn’t the only publisher getting into that sector. In October, John Wiley & Sons, another major textbook publisher, bought a company called Deltak.edu, which helps colleges run online courses, for $220-million.

The final deal between Rutgers and Pearson did involve textbooks from Pearson’s publishing divisions, says the university’s Mr. Finegold. Professors at Rutgers can freely use any of the company’s texts or software simulations in their online courses built with Pearson and can make that content available free to their students.

Mr. Finegold emphasizs that this doesn’t mean professors have to choose books from Pearson. But in the courses for which professors do adopt Pearson textbooks, that will represent an unusually deep role for a publisher—helping to build the virtual classroom, the curriculum, and the course materials. And that raises the question of why students need the university at all, if the publisher is the one doing much of the teaching. (Publishers, for their part, insist that they have no desire to push out instructors.)

These companies who make the object formerly known as the textbook don’t even use the word “publisher” much anymore. As Mr. Kilburn, of Pearson, puts it: “We’ve gone from being a textbook company to being a learning company.”

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