The Real Problem with Textbooks: A SafariU Editorial

by CJ Rayhill

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that textbook prices rose 186 percent from 1986 to 2004--twice the rate of inflation. The state PIRGs (student public interest groups) publish "Rip-off 101: How the Publishing Industry's Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs." The Make Textbooks Affordable campaign spreads to 50 campuses nationwide. Students, their parents, and professors are feeling the pain of high textbook costs, and they're demanding price cuts.

This populist revolt is getting lots of press and a few token concessions from textbook publishers, but the problem with textbooks is deeper and more fundamental than high prices: those expensive textbooks are relics of the pre-internet world, and wouldn't serve today's teachers and students--even if they were free.

The good news is that internet technology can put teachers back in control of their teaching tools and save their students money, too. It's a textbook case of disruptive technology serving users by providing a better, cheaper alternative to the status quo.

"People don't care about books; they care about ideas," says Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media. For centuries, books have been the best medium for teachers to pass on ideas and information to their students. While books will always be an excellent information interface, the internet gives us new ways to present, discover, and share information. Today's students, who have grown up online, thrive in the searchable, interactive, multimedia world of the web. It's their home territory, and they expect and want to learn there. A personal example: my nephew, a recent Computer Science graduate, asked me, "How did you ever get through college without the internet?" He literally could not imagine how to find the information he needed offline.

Given the options offered by internet technology and our students' immersion in it, it's time for a change. We need to challenge our assumptions and create new forms of publishing that work for today's teachers and learners. A key design principle of this new publishing is remixing--putting together digital content in creative new ways. Remixing is powering new services that are shaking up traditional publishing and distribution. iTunes has allowed music fans to create (and share) their own playlists. They now pick the tunes they want, sequence them, and control their listening experience, with no need to listen to the albums released by record companies. Google News lets readers be their own editors, and put together a personal front page by choosing the types of stories they want to see.

The role of publisher is shifting from ultimate authority to information source and facilitator. The form of published information is shifting as well, from finite and linear to customizable and remixed. Professor Kent Sandoe of California State, Chico, predicts, "The textbook industry is about to go through a major revolution. It's being challenged for the first time the way Napster challenged the recording industry and forced it to rethink the distribution of music." We publishers must give teachers good information plus the tools to remix it to fit their particular class.

At O'Reilly, our foray into this new world of online educational publishing is SafariU, our web-based co-publishing tool for Computer Science and Information Technology instructors. Instead of expecting teachers to build their courses around a one-size-fits-all textbook, SafariU lets them create custom print books by remixing content from a deep library of the best tech content. It provides an online portal where they can present all the information their students need for a specific course, in one place. Plus, it offers a peer-to-peer platform where teachers can share course materials. SafariU puts teachers at the center of the publishing process, where they belong.

"I really see SafariU as a revival opportunity--the future of textbook selection," says Jon Preston, Interim Chair of the Department of Information Technology at Clayton College & State University. "The days of looking through a dozen books and picking something that almost suits your course are nearing an end. Now you can have exactly what you need."

The heart of SafariU is its database of content from more than 2,200 books and 5,000 periodicals originally published by Addison-Wesley Professional, Prentice Hall PTR, Cisco Press, New Riders, Pogue Press, O'Reilly, and others. We've deconstructed all those books, and parsed them down to the paragraph level, so teachers can use whole chapters, sections of chapters, or even single paragraphs from as many sources as they want. They build their own textbooks--no more adopting a whole book when they just want the two chapters relevant to their class. Plus, they can include their own material in the mix. Finished books can be printed and bound or published online. Teachers control the number of pages in the book or the number of sources in an online syllabus, which means they also control how much students pay. At just 16¢ a page for a printed book, students end up spending far less for a text their teacher designed specifically for their class than they would for a bundled package they don't want or can't fully use.

SafariU doesn't just make next semester's textbooks less expensive. It gives students up-to-date course materials in cost-effective, innovative formats that serve today's web-immersed learners. It gives faculty full control over their course content and more choice in how to deliver that to their students. While it isn't the only solution to the problems plaguing the textbook industry, we believe SafariU represents an important step towards redefining educational publishing. It does offer relief from high prices, but more importantly, we believe it addresses the core problem: traditional textbooks aren't the right tool for the job in our web-centric, fast-moving information environment. Let's put the right information and tools in the hands of teachers and students, and see what they create.

For more information, check out the SafariU homepage.

CJ Rayhill was recently named SVP of Product Management and Technology for Safari Books Online (a joint venture between O'Reilly Media and Pearson Publishing).

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