Archive for January, 2012

Dispatch From the Trenches: January 2012 Rush Report As It Happens – Part 1

My phone has been busy lately as merchants contact me to see how rush is going and if I see any trends or issues that are exciting or alarming. As I’ve been answering these calls, I’ve realized that sharing this information would make a great post. So while I normally wait to do this after rush, I thought I would share a few observations a little earlier and as rush comes to a close. I will try to publish one or two thoughts a day for the next few days.

On-Campus Bookstores Becoming More Competitive
Over the past three years, Internet booksellers saw massive growth as they were able to offer services that local campus bookstores didn’t offer and to align themselves with the marketplace concept in addition to having their own stock. But now many bricks-and-mortar stores not only have strong online presences where students can order books, the stores also offer digital and rental options and their prices are much more competitive with those of online sellers.

The Custom Publications Factor
Another reason that campus bookstores are increasingly competitive is their hold on custom editions. As I speak with colleagues, I often ask them how much of the market is comprised of custom publications. From what I can gather from the array of responses (there is not hard data on the subject), almost everyone is comfortable saying that it represents around 30% of the market. With regard to individual campuses, I have been told it can be as high as 75%. Keep in mind that only official campus bookstores carry custom publications, thus ruling out other local bookstores and all online venues.

It seems that academic publishers were smart with the Higher Education Opportunity Act and they put a lot of resources into custom pubs and selling the benefits, namely that in some cases custom pubs can be beneficial to the student and the school as they remove unnecessary content from the book and reduce the upfront costs to the student. But they don’t put much emphasis (or sometimes they “forget” to mention) that there is no buyback value and the book has a one-time use. My guess is that the sales pitch has gotten pretty good and professors are choosing custom for this reason. It seems like a good deal at the time. But did the publishing rep take time to explain that the custom book has it’s own ISBN and is only available on that campus? That outside of that campus, the ISBN and the book don’t exist? That even if that same course is offered again, the custom pub won’t be of any use for students taking another professor’s section? Did the rep say that the custom edition is competing with the unmodified standard core edition, one that may cost more upfront but that the costs could be recouped at the end of the term, actually making the standard edition cheaper than the custom?

eBook Review: CourseSmart

Welcome to the next installment of the Textbook Guru’s eBook review series. Today I am taking a look at the CourseSmart eTextbook platform, but I’ve already reviewed Kno and Inkling, which you can read first if you haven’t already. My first two reviews were done using iPad apps, but CourseSmart is a little different, as you’ll see, so I am predominantly using it through my web browser.

As before, lets begin by talking about the purchasing experience, since each platform so far has had a different policy. With Kno and Inkling, each book (or chapter on Inkling) is fully purchased and yours forever (if you chose). With CourseSmart, all of their eBooks are rentals, and are disabled from your account at the end of the rental period. Renting print and eTextbooks was a hot topic at the start of this academic year as a way to save money, but some students found that because of their school schedule, they’d either have to rent the book for only part of their term, or extend into the next. With CourseSmart, nearly all of their rentals are for a 12 month period, ensuring that you’ll have plenty of time to use it.

Unlike Inkling, but similar to Kno, CourseSmart has a 14 day return policy on all their books granted you haven’t viewed or used more than 20% of the book. Of course all your books, or chapters of books, need to be ‘checked in’ before you can return it, which leads me to my next point. You can ‘check out’ sections of books, or entire books (up to 5 titles) which allows you to download them to your computer for offline reading. In my opinion this is one of the strongest features CourseSmart has to offer, since even today in the 21st century a reliable Internet connection is not always available.

INTERFACE:

Lets dive right into using the eBook. For starters, CourseSmart offers many of the tools I’ve come to expect from an eBook. For instance you can write notes that become anchored to the page they are written on. These notes are then accessible through the menu sidebar and are sorted by page number. This is pretty standard but what I found interesting is that you can also see all your notes inany book directly from you bookshelf. This would prove very handy if you take heavy notes to study from later.

Highlighting is also a standard feature, although CourseSmart only allows one color, yellow. Anything you highlight is also organized in the sidebar like your notes and you can quickly jump between important sections using this menu. Instead of being saved on your clipboard to be pasted later, when you copy text, CourseSmart pulls it out in a pop up window and converts it to plain text. As someone who prefers bulleted lists for studying instead of long passages, this would be helpful for sifting out only the important text and having it in a workable, editable format right in the eBook.

One feature I was disappointed in was the zoom tool. The other platforms I’ve seen have allowed me to zoom in and out freely on any part of the page, which was very helpful in the science texts which often have large diagrams or charts. However, when using CourseSmart on the web, the zoom tool simply toggles between normal view and a slight zoom, probably around 50% larger.

A weak zoom tool is certainly not a deal breaker, but it is more than made up for by two features CourseSmart boasts that I haven’t seen anywhere else, ‘share’ and ‘print.’ Clicking share will give you a URL to copy so you can “share this link with your instructor or classmates.” When your classmate opens the link, they are able to view the page you shared as if they were logged into your CourseSmart account. The best thing about this feature? It saves your highlights and notes from that page. This is the kind of interactive study tool I’ve been hoping to see in an eBook. Which leads me to the next great study feature.

CourseSmart allows you to print up to a 10 page passage directly from your web browser. Selecting print allows you to select a start page (defaults to the page you are currently viewing) and up to 10 pages after. Just like sharing a page through a link, this feature also preserves highlights, however notes are not printed along side it.

PLATFORM FEATURES

As I stated above, one of the most impressive features on CourseSmart is the ability to read offline. You can read any part of any book you’ve rented offline, as long as you don’t exceed 5 titles checked out at a time. Attempting to check out a 6th title will prompt you to check in one of your other books. To access your books while offline, you need to first be online. From your bookshelf you can select ‘read now’ or ‘read offline’ which will allow you to check off which chapters you want to download.

Being a big fan of Google’s web browser Chrome, I was disappointed that offline reading is only supported on Firefox version 3.6 and higher. I’ve run into this problem with other services, so I always keep Firefox on my desktop, but with so many browsers our there it seems strange to only support one. However, after you download the chapter(s), you need to bookmark the offline section by visiting coursesmart.com/offlinebookshelf. Then, to access your books offline you simply open your browser, click your bookmark for offline bookshelf and all your downloaded titles are waiting for you.

Now I must admit that complaining about the offline bookshelf’s limited availability seems silly when you consider the fact that your entire online bookshelf is available through ANY web browser with an Internet connection. So for offline I’m stuck with Firefox, but for online I can read from Chrome, Safari, IE, and most importantly any mobile web browser. There are mobile apps for Android and iOS devices, but being able to read from any device that can get to the CourseSmart website seems like a pretty handy feature.

Next, it’s important to note the inclusion of ‘eResources’ with certain titles. At first glance I assumed this would be similar to that DVD in the back of your textbook that you had to pay an extra $30 for but never end up using. However, while the eResource component of CourseSmart texts delivers valuable extra features, but they are features that are already embedded in the text on other platforms. Features like online homework, quizzes and exercises, simulations and videos or links to outside websites with related content.

To me, this is sort of missing the point of an eBook. These features are separated into a companion DVD for most print textbooks because there’s no way to include that content within the book. But eBooks have no limits to the kind of content they can display which is what makes them so exciting. Being able to tap on a diagram and hear a professor explain photosynthesis, or spinning a chlorophyll molecule around in a 3D image, or opening full screen videos that literally show you how evolution works is what separates eBooks from print books. Separating these features into a seperate eResource section seems like a step backwards to me.

CONCLUSIONS

Overall I enjoyed using CourseSmart. They have most of the standard features you’d expect from an eBook and it was simple to use and navigate within a book. I was disappointed in the lack of multimedia features within the text, but the study features like printing and sharing are very useful and not available elsewhere. However the best part of the CourseSmart platform is the ability to read on or offline, and the variety of devices you can access your books from. Being restricted to the iPad on other platforms is like print books in that you only have the one copy, but CourseSmart is like having a copy anywhere you have an Internet connection.

Since I’ve never had to reference any of my school books after I was finished with the course, the idea of having them on a rental basis makes a lot of sense. The 12 month rental period is handy since you don’t have to worry about how your schedule matches up to the rental periods, and if it results in lower prices to purchasing the eBook outright then I’m all in. I think CourseSmart is doing a lot of things right, and they have a very solid eTextbook platform that covers all the bases, however I look forward to watching them innovate in the years to come as certain features become industry standards.

So Many Stats…What Do They Mean?

Last August I started collecting stats for different textbook merchants.  I wanted to see how they stacked up against each other when it came to ranking, social media, and integration of technology.  I just collected the stats and never got around to blogging about them.  Then in December I decided to update my stats and see how they had changed.  I was surprised to see that while Alexa and Compete numbers had remained about the same the use of social media had greatly changed.  Textbook companies were increasing Facebook likes in huge numbers and integrating social media into the fabric of their website.
To illustrate some of the numbers I created two info graphics. The first one looks at Compete and Facebook.  We tracked how many Facebook likes a merchant has, if they use Facebook connect to speed up checkout and how they display Facebook social media within the purchase process.  I was surprised that only three of the 15 merchants used Facebook connect but not shocked to see that every merchant has a Facebook like button integrated into their site.  While it is not shocking that Amazon and Barnes and Noble have the largest Facebook presence, it was clear that the new players in rental are also leading the charge in social media.  It will be interesting to chart the changes and growth of these numbers over time.

Our second chart looks at Alexa and Twitter.  It was clear from my research that while Twitter is important and integrated into almost every site, the focus is clearly on conversation through Facebook.  It will be interesting to see how this shifts over time and if Google Plus will start to play a bigger role as social media gets more integrated into overall search.

Reaction to Apple’s iBooks 2

As media outlets around the world work feverishly to post articles about the Apple Education Announcement, I wanted to take some time to let the announcement sink in and collect my thoughts about what it all means for today and for the future.

First off, I wasn’t shocked that my email, Twitter, and phone have been busy today as everyone is soliciting industry-insider opinions on what Apple’s announcement means and if and how it will change things. Here are a few of my initial reactions:

  1. Make no mistake, this is a game changer. The real effects may take time to realize but Apple has just made it easy for anyone to publish. Before iBooks 2, you needed to find or generate content and then develop your own app, now all you need is the content. Consider the implications of such accessibility to publishing, the biggest being that now all of the so-called experts and authors can now publish using a name-brand platform closely linked with education. Lets look at an organization such as 20 Million Minds, a foundation seeking to develop content but lacking a distribution platform. Now they have that platform and can focus on content development and not worry about striking a distribution deal with a particular application provider.
  2. Publishers still own the rights to the content. They will control which books they release and how much they will cost. Throughout the fairly brief history of eBooks, the publishers have proven a few things: first, they are going to put their hands in as many cookie jars as they can; second, they will do whatever it takes to control the content and not let what happened to the music industry happen to textbooks. They are terrified of losing control and that resulting in “sharing,” legal and illegal.
  3. For a K-12 school to use iBooks 2, the school needs iPads and content. While the content is cheap, the hardware is not. As is, a school will spend $120 for a book. If they buy 100 copies, it costs them $12,000. The new iBooks 2 model will require them to pay $14.99 (or whatever the price for the particular title used is) for each student, each year. While this might make sense, it doesn’t factor in iPads and insurance and support and repairs, and it will take time for schools to adapt to the new formula and get the physical equipment into students’ hands.
  4. The right books need to be available for the process to work. Limited title availability has been a barrier all along the eBooks timeline. We haven’t see the full list of books that publishers are going to offer in iBooks 2 format, but for this to work in a high school, it needs to have every book that every student enrolled needs. The $499 cost of an iPad is absurdly expensive if a student can only use it for two of six classes. It simply cannot be justified and parents will not tolerate it.

So where do things stand and what does today mean? Well, we’re making progress making digital textbooks a real and really available and worthy endeavor. Today’s announcement was a big step and the industry will be changed by a powerhouse like Apple releasing the tools contained in iBooks 2. It will take some time to get a better sense of what type of content gets created and how educators can use it to enhance the learning experience. I look forward to seeing how this reshapes the education landscape and particularly where it leads in terms of higher education and college textbooks.

Apple’s Education Event: Another Game Changer on the Horizon?

It would be silly to underestimate the power of the announcement that Apple is planning to make tomorrow, especially given how the industry is already so abuzz. And why not considering Apple’s history of innovation and its commitment to education?

But this is slightly different, this is the first time when it is expected that Apple is going all in with textbooks. And with that, many questions are raised given that this is such a challenging industry where so many are dissatisfied and Apple is such a force for change. Consider the music industry pre-iTunes and post-iTunes.

As pundits covering the technology and education industries are busy making their predictions, I think it’s important to take a step back and wait, listen, and digest. The media has a tendency to over-hype these announcements (and all things Apple really — remember the iPhone 5 rumors not so long ago?) and start peddling rumors for increased readership and in attempt to call the next big thing first. I think the Amazon Rental announcement this summer was an example of this and the invented buzz surrounding an idea that wasn’t new for Amazon, just an existing product and service marketed under a new name.

Let’s join the speculation but do it cautiously and with a watchful eye rather than falling prey to sensationalism. It seems that while ed-tech and textbooks and learning materials will be at the heart of the announcement, higher-education may not be the target. Many reports are pointing to a focus on K-12 materials and classrooms. Nevertheless, the mere suggestion of Apple getting involved has prompted textbook companies, companies producing materials for all levels of education, to release their own announcements about new offerings and features as they prepare to take on a potential new competitor.

In the past week we have seen both Kno and Chegg release updates to their apps and eReader platforms in attempts to better the process by which students can access and share digital materials. Don’t think that’s not a result of feeling the creator of the iPod and the iPad breathing down their necks.

Honestly, it’s no wonder that Apple is moving into the textbook world, particularly reasonable given their foray into trade books in the form of iBookstore and their commitment to delivering (and even driving) learning-related and school-affiliated Podcasts and courses. Since its inception, Apple has positioned itself as the classroom computing platform. That schools and teachers and students have already so embraced Macs and iPads is no surprise or secret. That said, what tomorrow brings could be a game changer and not simply limited to K-12 education.
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