If technology doesn’t disrupt the very notion of the textbook first, its future is surely digital. While plenty of folks are touting the affordances of digital textbooks and instructional content and prognosticating about how fast K-12 schools make the switch to digital – including me and Arne Duncan among many others, etc., etc. – I want to focus instead on one aspect of how we are shifting from print to digital: the procurement decision schools make about whether to license digital instructional materials or purchase them outright, because I think ownership of instructional materials matters.**

Given the rise of OER (of which I am a fan), an increasing array of business models, questions about the degree of alignment to state standards and assessments, claims of effectiveness, and interoperability concerns, the instructional materials procurement decisions facing school districts have never been more complicated.

The instructional materials procurement decisions facing school districts have never been more complicated.Image credits

Up until relatively recently, this distinction – license or buy – was moot. OER remains a recent invention and the relatively large technology investments required to successfully implement a digital content strategy in schools just hadn’t been made in very many places. There also was only one dominant business model in the market: districts purchased one textbook per subject per grade per student from approved publishers. That same textbook would be used for anywhere from 5-10 years or more – passed from one student to the next – depending on a variety of factors including how well the book held up under student use.

When we talk about school districts ‘buying’ textbooks under this traditional model, however, I think we need to unpack that in a way that makes sense for the digital and open content world of 2015. Why? Because I don’t think it was ever fair to say that when a district purchased a textbook that they actually ever owned the book. Rather, schools were purchasing a restricted license to use a subject/grade’s worth of a publisher’s instructional content, which happened to be disseminated in the form of a book. When a book fell apart (a classic case of planned obsolescence), the district didn’t purchase the right to photocopy another student’s book to replace it. Nor did a district purchase the right to translate the language of the book into the language spoken by a student and/or their family. Correcting errors in the text? Update the examples and sample questions to improve student engagement or the quality of instruction? A desire to digitize some or all of the book? Not possible, because schools didn’t purchase the rights.

This meant that even though the teaching of algebra, for instance, may not change very much over the years, schools were obligated to repurchase algebra textbooks for their students whether that content was (or needed to be) updated very much each adoption cycle. This is what happens when schools bundle the purchase of licensed content in the form of a depreciating asset: the textbook. A great business for publishers, a really bad deal for school districts and the taxpayers that foot their bills. No way, no how the traditional textbook business model could succeed today if it hadn’t already been in place for decades.

It's a brave new world in the instructional materials market. Image credits

Fast forward to 2015. We have market research that suggests K-12 teachers are already using more digital instructional materials than print materials in the classroom. And, Education Week’s Michele Molnar recently highlighted the desire for districts to buy ‘unbundled’ digital instructional content from publishers, much the way we now buy songs unbundled from record albums. That is, if educators need to actually part with any money in the first place given the rise of the freemium model and the promises of OER advocates. It’s a brave new world in the instructional materials market, with traditional publishers remaking themselves and reinventing their products and business models as fast as they can in the hopes that they can retain their historic market share in the midst of increasing competition.

As the digital distribution of the type of instructional content found in textbooks overtakes the time-worn approach to distributing it in the form of a physical book, let’s return to the question facing school districts: license or buy?

Given the historic textbook business model and given how most of us access content online, from news to books to music to movies, the default procurement choice in the digital instructional materials market is clearly biased toward licensing. And hopefully this brings with it some advantages: continually/periodically updated content (if allowed as part of the adoption process), updates to the technology used to access the content, and more predictable annual costs for schools seeking to maximize their annual budgeting process.

However, it also brings some less obvious downsides:

  • licensing digital instructional materials are not necessarily less expensive for schools than purchasing textbooks (even without factoring in device and broadband costs), which strikes many as counter-intuitive;
  • much like the cable TV channels you pay for but never watch, the publisher remains in charge of the grain size of the content you can purchase – whether you are interested in the whole K-8 sequence for a specific subject matter or just K-3, single course of study, chapter, or lesson;
  • the publisher and/or its technology partner can remove or change the content in its bundle at any time, perhaps without advance warning to users;
  •  the publisher dictates the technology platforms it supports, which may lock schools into using software and systems they’d not otherwise be interested in purchasing (or the reverse can also happen, where the technology provider stops supporting a technology commonly used by publishers);
  • the publisher may be (c’mon, is) collecting data about educator and student use of their content to be used in ways which may make students, parents or educators uncomfortable; and,
  • similar to the copyright restrictions for traditional textbooks, licensed digital content does not allow purchasers to share or grant free and unfettered access to publisher content (hello, password management hell), allow users to modify it in any way to meet individual student needs, and may restrict users ability to combine it with other content, including that generated locally by educators.

Hello, password management hell.Image credits

Now imagine that schools – instead of purchasing restrictive annual licenses to digital instructional materials providers – chose to purchase that content outright, much like we choose to purchase a new car instead of leasing it. In this case, the balance of power and control shifts from the publisher to the school and the school gets to dictate characteristics of the content such as which authors/content creators/publishers they want to work with or how they want to organize the scope and sequence of the curriculum. Perhaps more importantly, in this scenario, schools remain in charge of decisions about student data privacy, about technology formats and platforms, and about how easily they can share, modify, combine, and enhance their content – with no inherent need to password protect it.

In many respects, I see this as one of the key benefits – if not the key benefit – to open licensing (and I mean CC BY here, not NC or SA) vs. copyrighted content. Ownership of instructional content by school districts preserves freedom for schools to personalize education, make the technology choices that make the most sense for their community, and save money over time. Efforts to procure openly licensed content, such as was done by EngageNY and is being done by the K-12 OER Collaborative, may offer a model that others can follow and/or benefit from in this regard.

Publishers who license their content will surely object to this notion, arguing that school districts aren’t either interested in or equipped to do everything required to be a high-quality publisher of instructional materials. Nor may schools be equipped to manage decisions about technology devices, formats, and platforms. And, surely, many traditional and new publishers will argue that their content doesn’t resemble textbook content in the least, being adaptive, personalized and interactive. I grant there is something to these arguments (though often much less than it seems from the press releases and sponsored case studies). However, the balance of control over instructional materials today sits ever more firmly (more so than it ever has) in hands outside the school district, costs more, and is more restrictive than it has ever been.

It is for all these reasons that I think the K-12 sector needs to launch a more open dialogue about ownership of instructional materials. So, my advice to school districts and states – before you kick off your next ‘textbook adoption’ cycle, whatever that textbook may look like in an increasingly digital world – you owe it to yourselves, your educators, and your taxpayers to think twice about how you procure your digital content. You may actually be getting more and less than you’ve bargained for if you’re not careful.


** Thanks to Karen Fasimpaur, whose own musings about the OER value proposition – along with a spirited twitter exchange among Karen, myself, Bill Fitzgerald, Karl Nelson and others – spurred me to write this piece.