Rodeo and Cowboys are about as American as it gets, but what does that have to does with the sales of textbooks. A lot actually. Let’s first explore a phrase, “Cowboy Up” My favorite definitions of this are from the Urban Dictionary definitions
Cowboy Up Definition # 1 When things are getting tough you have to get back up, dust yourself off and keep trying.
Example. Let's all cowboy up and get this job finished!
Definition #2 When faced with a hard chore, it's a shift in attitude from "can't" to a positive "can-do" with confidence and a non-complaining spirit that becomes contagious.
Example: Halfway through a hot day of hauling hay you might tell yourself or your buddy to "c'mon, cow-boy up." and thereby keep your work and your attitude from going south.
It seems like many of the players in the textbook rodeo can probably relate and are probably doing some version of Cowboy Up…even if it is a hopeless situation. Simply, we are on the verge of monumental change in the world of the academic textbook. Here are some of the problems based on my 20 years in higher education and my observation of the changes:
- The Market is Broken
- Everyone is Mad (publishers, students, faculty, administrators, bookstores, and parents)
- Students traditionally = captive consumers
- Textbook prices are inelastic
- Cost of textbooks is our enemy
- The textbook industry will fail to reinvent itself
- Colleges/ Universities are losing their grip on higher learning it is now the domain of the internet.
It certainly is a tough arena for publishers, faculty, administrators and students. Many have made predictions about the demise of the academic publishing industry (including me if you skipped the list above) and while we don’t know for sure if any of the major players will adapted and survive, we do know for sure is it is going to be tough time. If we go with the thread of this conversation we probably can agree we all are going to have to “Cowboy Up” before we are through.
Now for a little more on the rodeo theme. Springfield Colorado is a farming and ranching community in SE Colorado’s Baca County. When I grew up there Springfield’s main street had a Sears and a Montgomery Ward catalog store, 2 grocery stores, a bowling alley, 2 car dealerships, one Ford and one Chevy, a dry cleaners, a jewler, 2 ‘mom an pop’ department stores, 2 pharmacies, one with a soda fountain where kids could come for a milk and root beer concoction, called a Missouri Mule, 2 lumber yards, 5 restaurants (not counting the bowling alley which also served up the best cheeseburger and fries you have ever eaten, 2 barbershops, a drive in theater, a sit down theater and a domino parlor. Today, 30 years later, there are only 5 of those 27 businesses left. The bowling alley burned down but most of them just outlived their usefulness. People retired and the kids did not take over, kids went to college in larger venues and never returned, other people simply moved away and people could get products and services cheaper by going to other larger communities and more recently via the internet.
The Baca county fair is held the first week of every August in Springfield and has always sponsored a rodeo….until the past few years. It is a place where rodeo was king, was a integral part of the culture, but it is going away. Smaller prizes and fewer local cowboys and cowgirls began making it impractical to bring in full rodeo to go along with the annual end of summer extravaganza. Yes this seems a lot like the slow death of the text book. The annual County Fair and Rodeo rolled along fine with few noticing it was becoming smaller and smaller each year. The textbook was an integral part of the college education culture until recently, but as various factors have come to pass, the too expensive, irrelevant textbook is becoming even less relevant each year. Myk Garn in March 5th 2010 Keynote address at the Textbook Evolution Conference hosted by Tulsa Community College stated during his keynote address,
“The future is already here we just don’t recognize it.”
I would contend that in the current state of the educational publishing world with the emergence of companies such as Flat World Knowledge we may already be there. Until recently is would be impossible to think of the term ebook or etext much differently than the traditional textbook. It was the same…only electronic. However, things have moved along the spectrum of change in this area I think the definition can be reasonably changed. First, I think textbooks now should be free electronically. (Guess what, in the Flat World Knowledge model that is actually happening)
In my mind the eBook or eText should be defined in any given discipline as “ Chapters 1, 3 & 7 from one publisher, Chapters 2 & 9 from another, a YouTube video, a content module from the Open University or any combination of those and other resources.
Sort of best of breeds philosophy where we compile and bring to our students the very best resources for each given class. In reality I just think the acceptance of this model is finally coming around.
The picture below is not of a formal rodeo, but of the everyday rodeo on a working ranch and yes a rodeo is wild and unpredictable. The picture below is of my mother’s uncle John Layton in 1905.
There is a wild and unpredictable part of this picture, but there is also the end game in which the horse will become ride able and useful for the working ranch. I would suggest the text book evolution we have been seeing, although currently wild is not that unpredictable. It is a wild horse that will become ride able with a little work such as that is going on in the model introduced byFlat World Knowledge.
I don’t think theirs is necessarily the "Killer App" for textbook as there is not a "Killer App" for textbooks. Textbooks are only one form of content delivery.
Content is available along a spectrum The traditional textbook sold at most institutions of higher education is too expensive and is usually out of date the second it is printed. At the recent Chair Academy Conference in Atlanta I gave one of my “Unplugging from the Commercial Software Grid” talks. Which leads me to writing this post, because one of the attendees at this talk was the CEO and co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, Jeff Shelstad. His attendance and subsequent conversation made me think of a poster session I did in 2010 at the Textbook Evolution conference which I mentioned a little earlier in this post.
The key thing I wrote down in my notes from that conference there was a HUGE disconnect between student and faculty panel members perceptions of the importance of the textbook. Students want to see value from their instructional resources such as textbooks. If it is not there they don't feel obligated to purchase the book. Mostly I have outlined my favorite or most thought provoking quotes from the Textbook Evolution Conference. which was hosted by Tulsa Community College and sponsored by the Oklahoma regents for Higher Education. My favorite quotes and comments from the meeting (not in any particular order) are:
- Content is available along a spectrum.
- There is not a "Killer App" for textbook.
- If I had $100 to spend I would spend $1 on design and $99 on faculty development
- The future is already here we just don't recognize it.
- Cost of textbooks is our enemy
- The textbook industry will fail to reinvent itself
- Universities are losing their grip on higher learning it is now the domain of the internet.
- Quality is the preview of the faculty
- Education is People
- Education is Faculty (Faculty are the National Common Core of Higher Education)
- Technology Can reduce the cost of education when properly deployed.
- I think technology has created the greatest productivity increase in history over teh past 20 years except in education
- Technologies that connect things together are powerful
- Standardizing may not be the solutions.
- Technology makes no significant difference in learning. It is the faculty who make the difference In a time of tsunamic change it is not a good thing to be very good at an old skill
- The value of higher ed is not the lecture per se, but rther the whole package the content tied to the human learning experience on campus Colleges and Univ cannot survive on lectures alone
- Repositories are underutilized
- Can students write a better text than faculty
The solutions(notice I did not say solution/singular) to the textbook dilemma are coming.The poster sessions (one of which was mine) at the TextbookEvolutio... show three distinct efforts at addressing the textbook dilemma so solutions for the rising cost of textbooks already exist but are not necessarily scalable, until now.
A more scalable solution is on the horizon with the entry of players such asFlat World Knowledge to the publishing landscape. Prior to their entry into the higher education textbook industry in 2007, consumers had little choice but to accept the high costs of college textbooks. But co founders Jeff Shelstad and Eric Frank, who spent a combined 30+ years working for some of the largest traditional textbook publishers, including Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill, and Cengage saw that “Nobody was happy” and set out to create a different kind of publishing company that would dramatically reduce textbook prices for students, and make it easy for faculty to personalize their textbooks to improve learning and teaching. Flat World Knowledge formalized the distribution of open source textbooks and the offering of lower cost alternative forms of textbooks, such as digital textbooks. No longer do students need to carry expensive textbooks on their backs – they can access them digitally via laptops, iPads or smartphones (Which does lead me to ask if anyone is being left out because they can’t afford a piece of technology?)
I still have lots of questions as I conclude this post. Technology often drives change in many industries and costs often go down so why is it that technology has the exact opposite effect in education and we have to add technology fees to drive technology use instead of using technology to leverage our resources and drive costs down for students? Costs are shifted to students and families in what amounts to and excise tax on education. This has to change. This is a post in which I truly have empathy for the textbook publishers because I see many parallels between them, rodeos and the overall treasure which is rural America. But it is time to use technology and the open source mind set to bring costs down in in an industry which this is not the norm, higher education.