I am hopeful. I am fearful. I am exhilarated. I am mortified. Why? Because the first in what is sure to be a long line of heavy salvos is being fired at the textbook industry with Amazon’s new Kindle, designed especially to take on the status quo in the textbook market.
I am hopeful because the entire textbook industry needs to change. Simply put, it’s outdated, outmoded, and terrifically expensive to the point of being sheer lunatic.
I am fearful because I know there is going to be years of iniquity which will befall America while some classrooms smoothly make a transition to the digital delivery of educational content while other schools operate like the modern day classrooms which still use cassette players in class. (Don’t laugh. A heck of a lot of schools still use cassette players for instruction. Forget CD’s — which are already a outdated medium of content delivery — they are using CASSETTES!)
I am exhilarated because open source can’t be too far behind meaning that the stranglehold these behemoth corporations have on our classrooms is going to crack. The vice grip such a small group of folks have had over hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students in terms of curriculum is sheer foolishness and if they are looking for someone to help shovel dirt on this grave so it can be buried faster, I — as well as a heck of a lot of other teachers I know — would be glad to lend a hand. Textbooks, in their current incarnation, are pretty weak and all the best teachers I know use them as supplements at best — and never (like me) at worst.
And I am mortified. MORTIFIED!!
Why? Because when I read quotes like the one below by a guy named Bruce Hildebrand, the executive director for higher education for the Association of American Publishers, which represents several big textbook companies, I am shocked by the airs he puts on.
He said, and I quote, “… publishers are “absolutely agnostic” about how their content is delivered, so if costs like printing and shipping were removed, the companies could charge less.”
Bull pies!! As my friends in Kentucky might say, that dog just don’t hunt.
Agnostic? I mean come on folks. The textbooks have been drinking at the public trough of education funding for decades. They are multi-multi-multi-million dollar businesses. And how’d they get to be that way? By holding an iron grip on the market. If a teacher wants chapter 3, 4, and 8 she has to buy chapters 1,2,5,6 and 7 and there are literally less than 10 options whereby they can turn to shop. (We all know that’s it’s pretty much down to 3 big textbook publishers right now but I’ll grant them a wee bit of latitude and avoid going down the road of hurling accusations of collusion at them — they have enough problems.)
Well, not anymore bay-bee!!! If I only want the content of chapters 3, 4 and 8 then that’s all I am going to have to buy. And the amount of people offering high quality material on how to effectively and intelligently teach Chapters 3, 4 and 8 is going to balloon immensely. I mean why should I only turn to you, Mr. Textbook Publisher?
Because you have been so good to us throughout the years? Because when times were financially tough you went easy on our purse strings? I am not so sure how much goodwill you have built up over the decades.
Don’t believe me that’ll I turn somewhere else or demand customization of my eduational items either? Maybe you ought to check out a small little phenomenon called iTunes which has taken me from having to buy every song on an entire album to now being able to buy only the specific tunes I want. (To wit, I cite the Bee Gees. I don’t want songs like Tragedy, I want tunes like Jive Talkin’ You Should be Dancing, and, of course, Staying Alive for those teacher lesson plans I create in my underwear every now and then while blow drying my hair to keep it real.)
And maybe I can finally stop having to pay for material that’s already in public domain, too. Really, how many times have the ninth grade English classes of America paid Textbook Company X for the play Romeo and Juliet? Think about the cash we have spent over the past 50 years. Well, guess what Mr. Hildebrand, that text is now free. (Always has been for you — now it is for us. Goodness, how much do I love the idea of not having to use my school funds to pay you for something which you yourself do not have to pay for when teachers at my school are being laid off due to low funds?)
But now, Mr. Agnostic, all you will be able to sell me are the accompanying study materials to R&J. This brings real competition to the game. Like have you seen the materials this little known group called the Royal Shakespeare Company offers? Or do a search on Web English Teacher for R&J? If they are offering all of this great stuff, can you go toe-to-toe with them? And even if you can, can you match their prices — which are sometimes totally free?
But you, a guy who presides over an industry that rakes in monster bucks selling 100 dollar per kid per subject area textbooks isn’t sweating the idea that schools which adopt these new Kindles might threaten your revenues?
Besides, don’t you still have to digitally develop all the content you plan to sell, make it customizable, individual, accessible and functional for e-commerce delivery? I doubt that’s an impending expenditure of a few clams against your bottom line, really I do.
But no, you are agnostic.
Well, what I think you are, if you have any common sense at all, is terrified. And rightly so. The world is changing and all the millions you have in the bank of our school money isn’t going to be able to stop this from happening.
With a little luck, maybe we’ll be able to hire a few teachers back with the cash we save, too. Oops, there go our free backpacks during textbook adoption season.
I think we can live with it.