The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook

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    Textbook publishers argue that their newest digital products shouldn’t even be called “textbooks.” They’re really software programs built to deliver a mix of text, videos, and homework assignments. But delivering them is just the beginning. No old-school textbook was able to be customized for each student in the classroom. The books never graded the homework. And while they contain sample exam questions, they couldn’t administer the test themselves.

    One publisher calls its products “personalized learning experiences,” another “courseware,” and one insists on using its own brand name, “MindTap.” For now, this new product could be called “the object formerly known as the textbook.”

    “In the early days of TV, the first things you saw on TV were radio shows, and only over time did the next format evolve for that medium,” says Don Kilburn, chief executive of Pearson Learning Solutions. “I think we’re at that stage right now” with textbooks, he says.

    Major publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few years buying up software companies and building new digital divisions, betting that the future will bring an expanded role for publishers in higher education.

    So far publishers produce only a limited number of titles in these born-digital formats, and the number of professors assigning them is relatively small. Only about 2 percent of textbooks sold at college bookstores are fully digital titles, according to a survey of 940 bookstores run by Follett Higher Education Group.

    But if these new kinds of textbooks catch on, they raise questions about how much control publishers have over curriculum and the teaching process, as online education expands.

    “It’s not a textbook, it is an entire course,” says Jean Wisuri, director of distance education at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, describing a product called Course360, from Cengage Learning. “It has activities built right into the textbook itself.”

    A professor could essentially rely on a Course360 title as the full curriculum in an online course, letting students loose in the system and having them teach themselves. The Course360 titles connect to the university’s learning-management system, linking them directly into an institution’s existing virtual classroom.

    But Ms. Wisuri says she is not worried about the software’s replacing professors. “The ‘course in the box,’ if you will, should only be a jumping-off point for faculty members,” she says. “Our faculty has the freedom to pick and choose what they want from the materials.”

    As these “courses in a box” continue to improve, though, they could shift the professors’ role to be more like pilots on modern commercial planes, who let the autopilot do the flying except when they have to step in.

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