“Of course you realize this means war.”

8 11 2011

Here’s a tweet of mine from yesterday afternoon:

This is one of those instances where 140 characters can’t do the subject justice, so I thought I’d elaborate. I can’t blame Audrey Watters, the author of that quote, for writing those words as I strongly suspect they are true. Students probably do want social networks embedded into their textbooks. Most of them also probably want “A”s for doing no work whatsoever, but I’m not planning on letting that happen either.

At first blush, it appears that the edtech entrepreneurs have everything backwards. Students don’t pick what textbooks they get to read, professors do. If a professor wants to ban all use of e-textbooks, they can not assign them or simply put that language on their syllabus. [You would think that the footnote problem alone would keep e-books out of the history classroom, but I guess that some people don’t assign research papers.]

I’m guessing that this apparent ignorance of who assigns textbooks is not actual ignorance, but an unspoken assumption in the education technology industry that the ability of professors to pick their own textbooks is one of the things that will be swept aside by the great wave of disruptive technology that will be crashing over us any minute now. In other words, the edtech industry has declared war on professors. We just don’t know it yet.

I’ve been waiting to use this quote from Pearson’s Adrien Sannier (which I got from MfD) for some time now. He’s talking about whether OpenClass contradicts Pearson’s other institutionally oriented LMS programs:

Pearson LearningStudio and OpenClass serve different markets. Pearson LearningStudio is the de-factor standard for fully online programs at scale, allowing programs a great deal of control over the academic experience. By contrast, OpenClass is designed for the campus market, where curriculum decisions are made one professor at a time. We understand the needs of these markets are quite distinct and have made OpenClass with that in mind.

We recognize that there is more than one set of institutional requirements around the world for a LMS. OpenClass complements Pearson’s other platform offerings very effectively.

That quote is just about the purest expression of the profit motive that I’ve ever seen in my life. You’d think one of those systems would cancel out the other one over the long haul, but Pearson is willing to sell to every belligerent in the academic class war until a winner is declared as long as they can collect money from both sides in the interim. Pearson, in other words, is not your friend. They’re not really your enemy either, but like the stock brokers grasping at the bills Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies once threw from the gallery at the New York Stock Exchange they’ll gladly climb all over you in order to get what they want.

Professors who refuse to assign e-textbooks will be criticized for backward thinking, for failing to understand the rules of the new economy, and for forcing students to buy expensive paper texts when cheaper texts are available. We will be depicted as the enemy because we are the barrier between educational technology and student dollars. As the older textbook publishing industrial complex gets attacked by the newly emerging educational technology industrial complex, both sides will try to make our prerogatives into roadkill.

Just remember: We are the ones fighting to protect quality education, which puts the professors on the side of the angels. And if that isn’t enough, we can always throw pies.



3 responses

9 11 2011
Audrey Watters

I think there are a lot of problems with e-textbooks — you mention the footnotes; students talk about the inability to highlight and annotate.

You talk about “professors who refuse to assign e-textbooks…” — but don’t you assigned titles? (I say this as someone who taught in subjects that often didn’t have textbooks.) I would think that it’s up to the student then to opt to buy print or digital versions of, say, Introduction to Organic Chemistry. And I would say that for the reasons I outline in the story, that students are still opting for print.

Now, sure, if more content moves into “native apps” rather than just rarefied PDFs (which is frankly what a lot of digital textbooks are right now) — and apps that require specific devices — then I think that’s definitely cause for concern.

9 11 2011
Jonathan Rees


My problem is with the Internet capabilities of e-textbook readers. Many of us ban laptops so that students won’t surf Facebook in class. An e-reader, or even worse, a smart phone can enable the same thing just as easily.

I haven’t joined that club yet, but I’m seriously thinking about it.

10 11 2011
J Liedl

I let students buy the book in electronic format if they wish and if it’s appropriately available, i.e. in a version that preserves pagination. It’s working fine in the few cases I’ve encountered to date. Most don’t want ebooks, mind you, even if they’re cheaper. They find reading for extended periods on their laptops to be wearisome.

I’m not jumping into any of these proprietary CMS offerings. I’d prefer that our institution adopted Moodle, the open source platform, and that we were free to use what we want, as we want. I don’t necessarily teach as the textbook expects and being tied to their idea of the course, even if it is produced by a fellow classroom veteran, would feel strange for both professor and students.

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