Way, way back in 1995 . . .

There are few areas of the higher education industry more interesting than textbook publishing. The established textbook publishers – Pearson, Cengage, McGraw-Hill and others – face serious challenges. Criticism of rising textbook prices generated awful public relations in 2008-9 (see PIRG). If the very recent NMC Horizon Report is correct, open content is looming as a real threat. And competitors have arrived sporting new business models. New competitors include Flat World Knowledge (a digital commercial open source publisher), Symtext (which allows instructors to package digital content from multiple sources), Chegg (textbook rentals). And of course there is that little outfit called Amazon that facilitates the sales of second-hand books.

Nevertheless, sales for the major textbook publishers remain strong. But my friends working for the majors seem convinced that change is coming and that it’s going to hurt.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The rise of digital higher education was meant to make things easier for publishers; it was an opportunity to expand the publisher’s role in higher education. At least this is how Eli Noam, Columbia University professor imagined it back in 1995. In a paper written for  the journal, Science, the Communications professor speculated that in the coming online higher education market, publishers would be ideally suited to compete with traditional universities (whose status, previously protected by geography, was set to erode). Publishers might go so far as to establish their own online universities, “McGraw-Hill University”, that will “assemble an effective and even updated teaching package, making the traditional curriculum at universities look dull by comparison . . . “.

Eli Noam: Electronics and the Dim Future of the University.

“In any event, the ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities (they will merely break the ice) but rather commercial firms. Textbook publishers will establish sophisticated electronic courses taught by the most effective and prestigious lecturers. At present, tuition fees at private universities are nearly $50 per lecture hour per student, not counting most of the public and philanthropic support that universities receive or the opportunity cost of students’ time. With such Broadway show-sized prices, alternative providers will inevitably enter the electronic education market. Today’s students, if they seek prestigious jobs or entry-restricted professions, usually have no choice other than to attend university. However, this is a weak and mostly legal reed for universities to lean on, and is only as strong as their gatekeeper control over accreditation and over the public’s acceptance of alternative credentials. When this hold weakens, we may well have in the future a “McGraw-Hill University” awarding degrees or certificates, just as today some companies offer in-house degree programs. If these programs are valued by employers and society for the quality of admitted students, the knowledge students gain and the requirements that students must pass to graduate, they will be able to compete with many traditional universities, yet without bearing the substantial overhead of physical institutions. It is likely that commercial publishers will assemble an effective and even updated teaching package, making the traditional curriculum at universities look dull by comparison, just as “Sesame Street” has raised the expectations of pupils for a lively instructional style. Already available on video is the “Greatest Lectures by America’s Superstar Teachers,” distributed by a company advertising itself as “your private university, staffed exclusively by a ‘dream team’ of America’s best lecture professors.” Degrees are granted by the all-electronic International University College, affiliated with the big cable TV company Jones Intercable. The same company also offers courses on Jones’ Mind Extension University channel and students can receive credit from any of several dozen universities.”

Originally published in Science, Vol. 270, pp 247-249, October 13, 1995

For a while it appeared that Noam’s predictions would be realized. In 2000, Harcourt Publishing opened Harcourt University in the state of Massachusetts, but closed soon after.  A more successful venture, Universitas21, sponsored by Thomson Corporation, drew on Thomson’s (Cengage in the United States) instructional library in a collaboration with multiple universities across the globe to offer online MBAs.

What role will textbook publishers play in the future of higher education?

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