Students and the New Content Models – What Would We Have Done?

I’m heading over to Cupertino this week to talk at Apple’s Education branch about institutional support for iPads used in teaching. As it turns out, there are some good ways and not-so-good ways to get a large rollout of tablet devices into a University and we’ve, well the Faculty of Sciences, have managed to have a very successful roll-out. To support this, they now have an all-electronic textbook model so that students no longer have to lug 30kg (66lbs) of textbooks around with them.

This is bad for physiotherapists but great for the students. Well, for those who buy the books.

We’ve seen the purchasing of textbooks drop dramatically over recent time. There are a lot of factors at play here: changing demography so that more students have to work and have to decide what to spend their money on, a return to charging students for study (even as part of a long-term loan scheme), the fact that books have a limited resale value because new editions (and associated electronic resources) are released annually for most texts… There’s a lot going on. The fact that books are heavy and hard to lug around is just one more part of it.

Now the whole secondhand market brings me to an interesting point. Students appear, small scale and informal survey here so this is bordering on anecdata, to favour buying the physical text and the electronic version. That way they get something large and clunky to read at home, the satisfaction of the physical book that never needs charging, while having the convenience of a searchable reference that is always available as long as they have their gadget with them.

But students aren’t silly about these things. They will ask you, up front, which textbook they actually need, which is a fair question. We have reduced our own dependency on textbooks quite a lot because (a) many students won’t buy it anyway and (b) we can put a few into the library and they will function quite well in reference mode instead. However, it goes beyond a “what do I buy”, it also comes down to a “what can I use that will meet my requirements”?

A real book is an amazing thing but, ultimately, if someone hasn’t indexed it properly, you’ll quickly find that you have to dangle page markers out the side, start annotating, and read the whole thing cover to cover.

You can only do this with an eBook (on whatever format) if someone has given you the ability to do so. There are a number of electronic books that my students won’t buy because they have restricted search abilities, or constrain the way you can label pages.

Worse, there are a number of textbooks that students won’t touch with a bargepole because they have limited licence lifespans or have been shown to be unreliable in their availability. All it takes is a hiccup in an on-line verification server and suddenly a book that you paid $50 for is now inaccessible. Of course, this also quite explicitly gives you no resale or secondhand value as well, if the authentication is locked to your identity or the ID of your device.

It is no surprise that a model that has been creeping into gaming is now seeping into textbooks. You buy the legitimate copy and then download the pirate version because the pirate version either doesn’t have the irritating levels of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that reduces your usage or it provides an additional set of features by removing arbitrary restrictions. Of course, I cannot condone this in any sense – because it supports piracy and the number of people who would use the pirate copy without buying a licence will, most likely, outstrip the number of people who buy a licence and then have a second copy. Seriously, I’ve never done it, don’t think that it’s ethically defensible but, more importantly, it reduces the need to solve the actual problem. Rather than try and get some change going that will move us to a point where we don’t have to do this, you reduce the incentive to change because you just work around it. Don’t like Apple’s Walled Garden? Then don’t use an iPhone or start advocating for change – but don’t jailbreak your phone because you’re not addressing the root cause. Vote with your wallet, advocate, try to support good models and encourage positive change.

This is why I strongly support models like O’Reilly and Associates, where you can buy physical + digital, or just digital, and it arrives in a multiplicity of formats, DRM free and yours to pass on, as long as only one copy is in existence and use at any time. Immediately, this reduces the need to go to the pirate feeds. This brings back secondhand value. This reduces the impact of device loss or identity crash. Yes, someone can put their copy on a pirate feed, of course, but there are always going to be thieves and receivers of stolen goods. Rather than dealing with the minority who will do it anyway, I support O’Reilly because they make it easier for the majority who wish to make legitimate purchases.

When it comes to book piracy (even with a legitimate licence purchase in parallel), it is easy to say “Well, students shouldn’t be doing that” and, of course, I wish that they weren’t, and I completely agree that they shouldn’t be doing it. But can I understand why they’re doing it when the products that are strongly limited and restricted actually provide a less attractive option than the physical book, especially when the book can be snatched out of your hands through a software error! I also understand, and completely agree, that rights holders should be rewarded for their efforts and want to find a mechanism that allows people to use items that they have purchased as they wish, while still allowing the rights handling and money issues to proceed in a way that has, as its primary affordance, a legitimate and rewarding experience for all participants. I think that O’Reilly (and the other providers who are following them) have set up the right way of doing it – set your price correctly, place your product into that slot in an attractive way and the vast majority of your interactions will be positive.

I was fortunate enough to see the time before photocopying became cheap and widespread and, as a result, I was able to see how book use changed. Initially, almost all of us bought textbooks for our courses, if we could afford to. We had to, because photocopying wasn’t that cheap and the library copies always ran out. Without PowerPoint slides and photocopies of slides, you depended upon your handwritten notes and the textbook. Demographically, almost none of us worked and most were supported by their parents, who also bought the books. Then PowerPoint crept in, along with photocopied notes. Reliance on the textbook started to slip. Then photocopiers became faster, more reliable and cheaper. Suddenly people were carrying entire photocopies of the book, because the cost and time involved had become manageable. The second-hand book market, once a valuable commodity, started to slip as the photocopy price/time/availability started to move – but also because improvements in desktop publishing and electronic production meant that new versions could come out annually rather than ever 2-4 years. Suddenly, rather than finding a recent edition or current edition, you could be looking at something that was 4 generations old. This was compounded by the inclusion of “free access” to supporting web sites or code testing environments – which had a fixed lifespan and didn’t transfer with the book.

I left traditional study in 2001 (returning in 2004 for a PhD but that’s a different textbook relationship) and bandwidth was increasing, download limits were increasing and the time/cost metric for finding and downloading books was starting to reach the attractive point. And that’s where we are today – a new mechanism for grabbing stuff has reached the cheap enough point. It’s a new content mode but it’s the same old problem. We can talk about what we want students to do and not to do but, historically, they’ve always done the maths. It’s good to see that O’Reilly and people like that are also doing the maths and making it easier for people to act legitimately and do the right thing by the rights holders, without forcing them to bend over backwards to pay for things the right way and get what they actually wanted in the first place.