It’s a ritual of every new college semester: professors distribute reading lists, then students flock to the campus book store and online retailers to find the best deal on new and used texts. But as e-books gain in popularity, the days of the dog-eared “used” textbooks may be numbered. We find out how technology is affecting college curricula.


  • Jeff Young Senior Writer, Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Eric Frank President and Co-Founder, Flat World Knowledge, Inc.
  • Matt MacInnis Founder and CEO, Inkling

Inkling’s Textbooks for iPad

Inking – A textbook case of innovation. from Inkling on Vimeo.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jeff Young’s Site Suggestions for Textbook Comparison Shopping

  1. Amazon Student
    Amazon’s free iPhone app that works by letting a student take a picture of a text book’s bar code and then offering pricing options for the book through its site.

  2. Verba
    For each textbook title, Verba displays the bookstore price, Amazon price, price, rental prices, and other options. Young says about 100 college bookstores across the country have offered this search service to customers, even though it means they may sometimes lose out on business.

    This site, started by two Yale University students, also searches across different retailers to offer students easy comparison-price shopping.

iPad images from Inkling


  • 12:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. The first weeks of college used to be marked by a trip to the campus bookstore crammed in with every other student scouring the shelves for your course number, vying for a decent used copy of Econ 101.

  • 12:07:12

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut now that students can buy their books online from Amazon, rent them from Chegg or download them to their computer from CourseSmart, things have become a lot more complicated. Textbooks can now be bought or rented in both print and e-versions. But, despite the fact that they're digital natives, today's college students have been slow to embrace e-textbooks. We talk about the technology aiming to reinvent required reading with Jeff Young.

  • 12:07:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is a senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education where he covers technology and writes the "College 2.0" column. Jeff Young joins us in studio. Jeff, good to see you.

  • 12:07:51

    MR. JEFF YOUNGGreat to be here.

  • 12:07:52

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from New Hampshire is Eric Frank. Eric is the co-founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open college textbooks. Eric, thank you for joining us. And joining us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco is Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of Inkling, a company that designs textbooks for iPads. Matt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:19

    MR. MATT MACINNISSure thing.

  • 12:08:20

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Or if you're on Twitter, just go to hashtag Tech Tuesday. Join the conversation there. Send us email to, or just a tweet, @kojoshow. Jeff, the generation of students on college campuses today is known for being tech savvy. But when it comes to textbooks, most young people say they prefer the old-fashioned hardback.

  • 12:08:47

    NNAMDIWith other technology catching on at what is breakneck speed, why are students and professors reluctant to adapt eBooks for the classroom?

  • 12:08:58

    YOUNGYeah, it's been a puzzle. And, I think, from talking with students, it seems like -- and seeing some surveys -- the students are a bit conservative when it comes to their class materials. If you think about music, it was very quick to have downloads catch on in the iPod and all that. And we all think of that and think, oh, digital textbooks, same thing. But in the case of music, people really wanted (word?).

  • 12:09:21

    YOUNGThe consumer was really hoping and excited about music. In the case of which course book you're going to buy, it's really -- you're looking to the professor if you're the student. And you want to know, which one am I supposed to buy? And so you're looking to -- you're not necessarily going to go out on a limb and get some crazy new thing that doesn't seem like the common denominator.

  • 12:09:41

    YOUNGAnd then there have been some experiences with textbooks where students just feel like they're more comfortable with what they know from grade school.

  • 12:09:50

    NNAMDIOn the other hand, Matt MacInnis, it's my understanding that the Virginia Department of Education tested the books that Inkling is producing and found students doing a little better with those.

  • 12:10:05

    MACINNISYeah, well, the report is going to come out next week. But we found that students that use Inkling did much better on their AP scores than those that used the equivalent print textbook. So there's -- I mean, there's some early evidence to suggest that it's a better tool for learning. But I think there's a lot more nuance to this than meets the eye.

  • 12:10:27

    NNAMDIHave you used or assigned an e-textbook? How has it changed your study habits or classroom interactions? Call us at 800-433-8850. Or if you're on Twitter, just go to Tech Tuesday hashtag and join the conversation there. Jeff, e-textbooks for college students are evolving, and they're changing rapidly. What are they at their simplest and at their most dynamic?

  • 12:10:51

    YOUNGIt's a great question. What is e-textbooks? Early experiments were not very creative. They were essentially taking the print textbook and dumping it on a form you could read on your computer, like a PDF or something. And now, there's -- in the last couple of years, there's really been a movement by some publishers to try to reinvent what it is, what the textbook is.

  • 12:11:07

    YOUNGAnd Inkling and Flat World are some examples of that. But also, you know, these are adding some videos and fancy graphics, but also doing things like, can -- asking, can the textbook be a kind of intelligent tutor that could guide you through this material and then quiz you? And then it's sort of a -- that's the fantasy.

  • 12:11:27

    YOUNGNow, right now, I think the reality is that it's a very confusing time if you're a student or a professor because everything is in flux. And the landscape is very full of different choices.

  • 12:11:40

    NNAMDIHow about those people who might make the point that, look, only maybe 1 or 2 percent of college textbooks are available in electronic format? And even though a recent study by the book industry study group found that 70 percent of -- 75 percent of students still prefer print textbooks to digital, if 25 percent of college students are saying that they are willing to look at, oh, 1 percent of material, that might be saying something.

  • 12:12:05

    NNAMDIIt might be saying we've got a movement starting here.

  • 12:12:10

    YOUNGIt's interesting to see other industries and think about how much things have changed elsewhere. And I don't know what is going to happen with e-textbooks. But I think a lot of people are looking right now and thinking, you know, whether you go to the bank and, who goes in to the bank teller anymore? Or, even in the case of, you know, checkout at the drugstore, the self-checkout counters that have come into a lot of stores.

  • 12:12:28

    YOUNGAnd the question is sometimes people resisted those in the beginning, and then it caught on. And will that happen in e-textbooks? Even though, at first, and some of the first experiences were lackluster by students in some of these early cases. So it's really going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

  • 12:12:45

    NNAMDIMatt, Inkling is working with a lot of the big traditional textbook publishers on content design for the iPad. Tell us who you're working with and what an Inkling textbook looks like.

  • 12:12:56

    MACINNISWe work with the big publishers McGraw Hill and Pearson, the folks that you would, you know, see on the spines of many of the textbooks you'd find inside of a typical college bookstore. And, you know, we kind of gently deconstruct the textbook. We take that print title and all of its assets, and we build something from the ground up for iPad by sort of rethinking the way the content is structured.

  • 12:13:18

    MACINNISWe don't change things substantially from what's in the book in terms of the text or the images, so that -- you know, if a student's sitting there with an iPad and he's sitting next to his friend who has the print book, that those two people are -- they're compatible with one another. But, you know, we -- as Jeff said, we integrate video where appropriate. We take -- you know, if you're talking about a molecule, we render that molecule out in 3-D.

  • 12:13:39

    MACINNISIf there are multiple-choice questions at the end of the chapter, we turn those into interactive assessments. And the authors have actually gone back and written feedback so that, if you get something wrong, it's a kind of diagnostic opportunity for the student. So, you know, we do a lot to make these titles shine on a device like an iPad. And even though they're compatible with the print book, they're a heck of a lot better than what you get in print.

  • 12:14:03

    MACINNISAnd, you know, you just talked a little bit about how many students have said that they don't like digital textbooks. And there's a really good reason for that, which is that over the last, you know, five or six years, even more than that I would suppose, with respect to the digital textbook, it really has been what Jeff said.

  • 12:14:18

    MACINNISIt's been the PDF that's been kind of dumped onto a computer screen or maybe a stripped-down pile of texts that's been dumped onto a computer screen.

  • 12:14:27

    MACINNISAnd, you know, you wouldn't do that with a map. Why would you buy a PDF of a map? You'd use Google Maps. And I think the reason we use Google Maps is because it helps us get from point A to point B more easily. And I think there's an analog there for learning that we want someone to get from point A to point B more easily. And just spilling a print product onto a computer screen is not going to help them do that any better.

  • 12:14:46

    NNAMDIAnd if you go to our website,, you can see what the Inkling iPad looks like there, compliments of Anne Stopper and Matt MacInnis. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd actually like to join the conversation. Are you a student, professor or parent debating whether to give an e-textbook a try? Tell us why you're reluctant or eager to embrace the technology, 800-433-8850. Or send us email to

  • 12:15:15

    NNAMDIIf you're on Twitter, join the conversation by using the Tech Tuesday hashtag. Joining us now by telephone is Eric Frank, co-founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open college textbooks. Eric, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:15:31

    MR. ERIC FRANKThank you for having me.

  • 12:15:33

    NNAMDIYour company, Flat World Knowledge, turns the traditional publishing model upside down by offering textbooks online for free. How does it work? And what's the catch?

  • 12:15:44

    FRANKSure. Yeah, so we've basically borrowed on the best of the traditional practices of the traditional industry from whence my co-founder and I came. And so they do a lot right to get high-quality authors, to get high-quality textbooks produced, to produce teaching supplements to correspond to those books to enable faculty to effectively use them in the classroom.

  • 12:16:06

    FRANKWhat we think they have wrong is the pricing model, which we think is off by orders of magnitude, based on what a student expects any textbook or any textbook to cost them.

  • 12:16:19

    FRANKThe distribution model, meaning too few formats to choose from, from amongst students who are, as you're hearing and talking about, quickly changing their reading styles, and, ultimately, too little flexibility for faculty to be able to improve upon the existing materials that they start with from us as a publisher and then localize them and adapt them and make them more relevant to their own particular point of view and their own particular classroom.

  • 12:16:47

    FRANKSo our perspective has been to harness technology in innovative business models to sort of do that, pair the best of the old world with the best of the new world. So we publish textbooks from leading authors that write exclusive new textbooks for us. But when we publish them, they're under a creative common open license, instead of all rights reserved, which transfers legal control to faculty to be able to adapt them to their hearts' content and improve them for their own particular classroom.

  • 12:17:16

    FRANKAnd we give them a technology platform to be able to make all of those kinds of changes online very easily, integrate videos from YouTube, integrate their own documents, et cetera. And then, ultimately, we press a button, and our technology builds that book on the fly in about seven different formats. So it will build a PDF that can be printed on demand and shipped to a student who wants to buy a print book for between $35 and $70.

  • 12:17:40

    FRANKBut it also produces any .pub file which can be downloaded and read on one's iPad or a dotMobi file for one's Kindle, an mp3 file for an iPod-accessible versions for students who have print disabilities, and so our goal, really, is to harness technology to give students the choice about how they want to read and give faculty more control over that content.

  • 12:18:04

    FRANKUltimately, we are producing a free online version as kind of our hook to a student to come in and say you can read through the browser without paying us anything. And if you want to buy one of those alternate formats, go ahead. And we're seeing over 50 percent of students actually making purchases as opposed to reading purely online throughout the semester. And that's really the key to the business model.

  • 12:18:27

    NNAMDISo you're satisfying the desires and needs of students who are looking at price and personalization. But why do textbook authors decide to publish with your company over more traditional companies? And why do professors choose to assign your books over theirs?

  • 12:18:43

    FRANKSure. So I think on the author front, authors are probably amongst the most frustrated constituents in the marketplace. They typically only get paid a royalty on net sales of their textbook, and they only get paid on the new sale of a textbook. And as prices have spiked in the last decade, publishers are selling less new textbooks.

  • 12:19:03

    FRANKAnd students are availing themselves, increasingly each year, of used textbook, rented textbooks, shared textbooks, no textbook, pirated textbook. None of those things pay an author. And so they watch their book get adopted and used by one classroom, let's say, over a two-year period, about eight -- if -- let's call it eight -- four different students, and only one of those students actually generated any income for that author.

  • 12:19:30

    FRANKSo what we're doing for the author is saying, we're giving you a market-entry strategy to help your book get used because it's more affordable. Therefore, it will get adopted more frequently. It's adaptable by the instructor who places value on the ability to adapt the content for their classroom. And we're generating less revenue per student on average, but more revenue consistently over those four semesters where your book is being used because we're not inundated by used books and all of those other alternatives that I mentioned.

  • 12:20:02

    FRANKAnd so authors actually get a future-looking revenue model and a market-entry strategy that's more aggressive than publishing their book in a traditional way with a traditional publisher. I think faculty are adopting them because they realized the cost of books has priced so many students out of the market. Estimates today are that 40 percent of students either go without or try to share.

  • 12:20:24

    FRANKA recent study by the Student Public Interest Research Group showed that 70 percent of students have forgone purchasing a textbook in the last semester that they knew was a required book. And of those who said they didn't buy the book, almost 80 percent of them said they believed that would hurt their course performance. So, I think, faculty are trying to pull along groups of students who are no longer accessing all of the course materials.

  • 12:20:50

    FRANKAnd so they're trying to solve that problem for practical reasons. And then, again, they see value in the ability for their own ability to adapt the textbook, to include videos, case studies, projects, questions they've written and really improve the book for their own teaching purposes.

  • 12:21:05

    NNAMDISpeaking of practical reasons, Jeff Young, or practical problems, is my-e-reader-battery-died-so-I-couldn't-read-the-assignment going to be the new my-dog-ate-my-homework? Because they do have limited battery life.

  • 12:21:20

    YOUNGI do hear that. This is the reason that students tell me they don't like e-textbooks, is they want to go read in the student union or plop on the couch in the library or the comfy chair. And they -- just like all of us -- sometimes forget their power cord or forgot to charge this morning on their laptop.

  • 12:21:37

    YOUNGAnd one student told me that he feels like sometimes with his e-textbook, which he reads on his laptop instead of a tablet, that if his battery is dead, he's shut down from studying. And that, to him, is -- it means print is better for him right now with the way things are.

  • 12:21:52

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Tech Tuesday on e-textbooks. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. As a student or someone helping to support one, where do you go for the best deal on required reading? If you're on Twitter, you can simply to our Tech Tuesday hashtag to join the conversation. Or you can send us email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:16

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on e-textbooks. We're talking with Matt Macinnis. He's the founder and CEO of Inkling, a company that designs textbooks for iPads. He joins us from studios in San Francisco. Joining us by telephone from New Hampshire is Eric Frank, co-founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open college textbooks.

  • 12:24:38

    NNAMDIAnd in our Washington studio, Jeff Young, senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education. He covers technology and writes the College 2.0 column. I'd like to go directly to the telephones. Here is Marina in Potomac, Md. Marina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:54

    MARINAHi, Kojo.

  • 12:24:55

    NNAMDIHi, Marina.

  • 12:24:57

    MARINAI'm a college student in Carleton College in Minnesota. And I'm from the D.C. area and Carleton's a liberal arts school.

  • 12:25:06


  • 12:25:06

    MARINAAnd I think the e-books are great for -- they're great for the sciences and math, but I think they're a little bit harder for social sciences. I know that with my textbooks, they're always covered in sticky notes and annotations all over the edge. And I was wondering how the new textbooks, the new e-textbooks would -- if they'd be able to annotate on the edges or write little notes to yourself.

  • 12:25:28

    NNAMDISo if you're saying that they might be harder for social sciences and liberal arts, are you afraid that, with e-textbooks, you won't be able to say this?

  • 12:26:10

    NNAMDIRodney Dangerfield, of course, from the movie "Back to School." But, Jeff, taking Marina's question, aren't there some fields of study where you're seeing e-textbooks adopted more readily than others?

  • 12:26:21

    YOUNGI think the sciences are one in which the -- you know, the idea of the spinning 3-D molecule that Matt mentioned earlier is certainly seen as -- any field where illustrations and sort of complex problems that you need sort of reviewing and homework that can be graded interactively, like a math or science setting where there's, you know, one answer that you could have a textbook kind of go through questions with you.

  • 12:26:45

    YOUNGYou do see a lot of publishers focus their interactive textbooks, experiments in some of those types of math and science fields or things like accounting. You'll also see it, quite frankly, in subjects where there is quite a few textbooks sold. So the biggest courses out there, like accounting, sometimes have the best experimentation. But in the social sciences, it has been -- excuse me, in the humanities, it's been -- it has been a little slower.

  • 12:27:10

    YOUNGAnd the experiments that have been out there, where they compared traditional to Kindle or tablet textbooks, you've seen that, in the liberal arts, they've worked less well according to the students.

  • 12:27:21

    YOUNGAnd one of the things is as simple as if we're in class and the professor says, turn your novel to page 60, and everyone has a different e-reader format, then it can be kind of a moment of klutzing (sic) around with the computer, whereas we all know how to do that with a printed textbook. So if you're just doing sustained reading, maybe there's been note-taking. Maybe it is a little easier. Some students say on a...

  • 12:27:45

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Matt MacInnis?

  • 12:27:47

    MACINNISI mean, I had a bunch of responses. I mean, to the caller's question about, you know, whether you can create marginalia and manage your notes, well, of course, you can. And, you know, I can only speak to Inkling. But when you come into Inkling and use it, you can, of course, select some text, create a note. You can share that note with your friends. You can see the notes that others have added.

  • 12:28:05

    MACINNISThe system even recommends, you know, the notes and highlights of other people if they have done well on their assessments. So there's a whole layer of intelligence here that is today. This isn't, you know, from the future. This is stuff you can get inside Inkling, at least. With respect to, you know, whether the humanities or the sciences have different sort of positions on the totem pole with respect to digital content, I don't really buy that either.

  • 12:28:28

    MACINNISI think there's absolutely wonderful things that are being done in the humanities. I think, you know, being able to watch videos in a psychology textbook, being able to see, you know, annotations on the literature -- I think there's tons of opportunity to do this stuff. And I think we've done a great job of building some really cool titles within Inkling.

  • 12:28:45

    MACINNISSo I know -- I -- and page numbers, I think -- again, within Inkling, you type in a page number and it correlates immediately to what's in the print edition of that book so that everybody can find that page. Not -- you know, the people in print are slower. The people with the digital textbook are finding that page more quickly 'cause they're simply typing in a number.

  • 12:29:02

    MACINNISSo I think a lot of these notions of what, you know, what was sub-optimal, what was frustrating about digital textbooks just two or three years ago have really flown out the window with some of the stuff that we've done.

  • 12:29:14

    NNAMDIMarina, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Will in Reston, Va. Will, your turn.

  • 12:29:21

    WILLHey, there, Kojo. I love your show.

  • 12:29:23

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:29:24

    WILLYeah, I just graduated from finance program in Virginia Tech, and I'm sure there's some great e-textbooks out there. I haven't used any made by your guest, so they might be great. But I personally hated all the ones that I've used.

  • 12:29:38

    NNAMDIHow come?

  • 12:29:39

    WILLMy concerns are, one, I think they're -- they can be way overpriced, considering how cheap they are to keep up. Two, most paper textbooks are poorly designed anyway. And so, I think, a lot of times, companies will use the electronic version as a crutch to cover up bad writing or presentation. Three, I think professors often become really dependent on the tools, especially with quizzes and things.

  • 12:30:08

    WILLAnd a lot of times, it might be better for the professor to, you know, grade the student themselves. And, lastly, at least on a laptop -- I don't know about iPad -- I find that it's just much harder to read large amount of text on a screen as compared to paper. So thanks for taking my call.

  • 12:30:26

    NNAMDIWell, I'll start with you, Eric Frank. Overpriced.

  • 12:30:30

    FRANKYeah, you know, I think the caller raises, what I think is, a critical point. I think a lot of the conversation around why e-book uptake in the higher education market has been slower than one might have anticipated centers on this sort of dichotomy between the old-school, flat-reading experience and the new-school, interactive and dynamic experience. I think that's actually wrong. I think that publishers control pricing in the marketplace.

  • 12:30:59

    FRANKAnd as publishers see the world shifting slowly, fast -- it doesn't matter -- eventually more business will continue to shift at some pace online or digital. That's a threat because it cannibalizes high-priced print sales that they're currently sustaining today.

  • 12:31:18

    FRANKAnd so what, I think, is in the interest of the publisher and what we've seen in industry after industry is the industry that controls the business today tries to do things in the digital world to sustain high prices and margins. I will put this book out there, and we'll put all these great assets and videos and interactive simulations. And that will allow us to charge just about the same thing that we're charging for our high-priced print book today.

  • 12:31:42

    FRANKI think that's what students have categorically rejected in the digital world more than anything, is they think the books are overpriced to pay 60 to 70 percent of what you're paying for a print book. And then watch that book expire six months down the road and have a mediocre experience along the way, so...

  • 12:31:59

    NNAMDILet me put the design question to Matt MacInnis.

  • 12:32:03

    MACINNISI think that the -- you know, the design thing, you can do it wrong, and you can do it right. I don't think it make sense to arbitrarily jam a whole bunch of media in the book and call it a digital book with enhancements. So I think you have to think critically about the learning outcomes you're trying to achieve. And I give the big publishers a little more credit, perhaps, than my colleague, in thinking this stuff through.

  • 12:32:26

    MACINNISI think the pricing models, I think he's right. I think that it's a little bit messed up. And I think that over time that the prices are going to have to change. One of the things that we do is sell by the chapter so that students only buy the chapters that they need and only pay for them when they need them.

  • 12:32:40

    MACINNISAnd that helps a lot. But it really is just a baby step toward getting into a world where the content is more modular, more flexible and the media richness is really appropriate for the learning outcomes you're trying to achieve.

  • 12:32:51

    NNAMDIAnd, Jeff Young, the caller's argument that it's just too difficult to read.

  • 12:32:58

    YOUNGI do -- you know, there is this thing that's said about this digital generation, digital natives, that they love to read on screens or they're so comfortable that it's the same to them as print. But, you know, I think there is a sense that I'm hearing from students, like Will, that it is sometimes, you know, there is a sense of -- if you're reading for long periods or really diving into a subject, that they're more comfortable than they're used to reading on print.

  • 12:33:22

    YOUNGWhether that'll change, I'm not sure. But I also hear -- and I wonder if what Will thinks of this -- but if the -- one reason on the screen is that you're also with the distractions that are possible. One student told me recently that Facebook is always on the other window on his computer. And so that is calling to him like the siren song.

  • 12:33:39

    YOUNGAnd so one reason that he didn't like to read on the screen is because there were so many distractions when he's in the laptop format.

  • 12:33:46

    NNAMDIIs that a problem for you, Will?

  • 12:33:49

    WILLYeah, I think that's pretty on point. There's also just a degree of your eyes getting tired. I've heard about a study once, you know, comparing reading on a screen to a book. And your eyes physically get tired more, which to (unintelligible) me, but the distractions are also a big thing.

  • 12:34:04

    NNAMDIAnd the point you made about the dependency that professors tend to develop, I'd like to hear some -- from some professors on this, 800-433-8850. How do you feel about e-textbooks, if you happen to be a professor who uses e-textbooks? Will, thank you very much for you call. Or if you happen to be a professor thinking about it, 800-433-8850. We go on to Carlene (sp?) in Bethesda, Md. Hi, Carlene.

  • 12:34:30

    CARLENEHi, Kojo. How are you?

  • 12:34:32

    NNAMDII am well.

  • 12:34:34

    CARLENEI would just like to share another point about the pricing and another reason why students might not work right away to the e-textbooks, regardless of whether they have a Nook or a Kindle or an iPad, right away.

  • 12:34:49

    CARLENEWhat I found is that when I'm buying my textbooks for college this fall is that the books might cost $140, and then e-books might cost $120. But I can also get a used book for that price and then resell it. And I think it's a little bit absurd, the price point, when each customer that's buying an e-book doesn't get that opportunity to resell it. But they still have to pay a really high price for the production of the books.

  • 12:35:17

    NNAMDIHow do you deal with the reselling issue, Eric Frank?

  • 12:35:21

    FRANKWell, I think the -- first of all, I agree with the caller. I think that's when I say the current pricing model is really out of skew. I think students see that. I think that the used book problem is a real problem for the textbook publishing industry. And it's probably the most disruptive force for change right now in that industry. We don't have such a challenging problem.

  • 12:35:46

    FRANKFor example, at Flat World, we sort of view ourselves as a platform agnostic publisher. So the point of -- for our model is, whatever -- however you like to read, if you want to buy a print book, you can. If you want to buy a -- you want to read through your browser, you can. If you want to listen to an audio book, you can. If you want to buy the format to download to your device, you can.

  • 12:36:06

    FRANKSo, in the end, when we look at 100 percent of the students who are consuming digitally -- I'm sorry -- consuming Flat World Knowledge textbooks in a class, only 30 percent are buying a print book today. The other 70 percent are distributed across all the various forms of digital, and of those 30 percent...

  • 12:36:23

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to interrupt because I want to get Jeff Young in on this because a lot of students have had the experience of trying to sell back a text at the end of the semester, only to find that the value has plummeted or is non-existent because, well, a new edition has come out. What do e-textbooks mean for the used book market? And Carlene is complaining that, well, I can't do anything with it after I've used it.

  • 12:36:46

    YOUNGYeah, Carlene makes a really good point that a lot of the e-textbooks sold online are -- and I don't think our guests -- the companies that are our guests here have are not this way.

  • 12:36:56

    YOUNGBut if the major publishers, through their selling, often have a self-destruct kind of feature built into these online textbooks that they don't -- they talk about it. But it's sort of hidden in the marketing often. And so, often, with e-textbooks, it is a rental even if they don't use the word rental, that it -- and you certainly can't resell it because it's this, essentially, password that is supposed to be assigned to just one person's email address.

  • 12:37:19

    YOUNGSo the, you know, students look at this, and they really are weighing their options, as any consumer would, making an expensive purchase. And they do see that, you know, if they can sell and use, then that makes a better calculation sometimes. But the additions keep changing, which the publishers have done for years to try to make sure that they have students -- have a reason to buy new because they do lose in that used book game.

  • 12:37:45

    YOUNGAnd the -- some stats have shown that every four years, on average, new editions come out. But I've heard recently that there are some people watching this that think some publishers are putting out new editions even faster, at a three-year pace or -- and students often react to that, especially in fields that they feel like the information doesn't change that much, as somehow a, you know, a rip-off, that they think -- that they're saying, why is this changing when, you know, these things don't change very often, the information in the books, necessarily?

  • 12:38:15

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Matt MacInnis?

  • 12:38:17

    MACINNISI say a couple of things. And it's interesting. People will simultaneously criticize a large publisher for doing a print book where the minute it hits the paper, it's out-of-date, but then turn around and criticize them for revising them more than every four years. And I think there's an innate problem with that criticism, you know, happening side by side.

  • 12:38:35

    MACINNISThat being said, you know, for -- to just to point about editioning kind of being the self-destruct button on these titles and their value, you know, Jeff, you said three to four years. The truth is that it's actually now down to two years for many of the titles and three years for the larger ones. So the resell value of the book plummets to zero really, really quickly at the behest of the folks that create them.

  • 12:38:58

    MACINNISAnd that's why, you know, they don't want to be spending the money on these editioning cycles. They know that it is expensive. They'd much rather put a book up on shelf and sell it for 10 years. And yet the technology in print is really constraining to the author and to the publisher, so digital opens up whole new realms of possibility for the publisher. They recognize this.

  • 12:39:18

    MACINNISBut for as long as there's a demand in print, of course, they're going to continue to serve it, so, I think, the future here is really interesting. I think modular content sold for a couple bucks apiece, you know, at the chapter level, or whatever you want to call it, is on the very near term horizon. But as it stands, the editioning cycle is going to stand as well, and it's going to be more expensive.

  • 12:39:39

    NNAMDII'm glad you talk about selling books by the chapter. Carlene, thank you for your call because that's what David in Washington, D.C., would like to talk about. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:48

    DAVIDThanks, Kojo. I am concerned about this modular selling of chapters. What happens if a student has a textbook and it just drops open on a page in a chapter that wasn't assigned? The student could learn the history behind the chapter he was supposed to buy or get entirely new ideas about the subject.

  • 12:40:10

    DAVIDI think it's really -- by selling these small places of knowledge, it's really degrading the college experience when you're supposed to look at all kinds of ideas and different points of view. This way, focusing on one single chapter, I just think that it's just very harmful for higher education.

  • 12:40:32

    NNAMDIThe difference, Jeff Young, between when you're supposed to and what you want to do.

  • 12:40:39


  • 12:40:39

    NNAMDIDavid makes the argument that you're supposed to look at a lot of information. The student says, hey, I just want this one chapter.

  • 12:40:44

    YOUNGIt's -- it is interesting to see the different perspectives. I hear from professors the same concern David is saying about, you know, these textbooks were actually written in a -- you know, the publishers go a long way to try to make it a curated experience that's supposed to deliver -- you know, the 33 chapters are meant to go and progress in exactly the right way and guide students through it.

  • 12:41:05

    YOUNGAnd professors are always putting alternate, you know, optional readings on their list. Students, forever, I think, have not bought those books. But the professor has this idea that if you list all these other books, if you're interested in the topic, you'll go out, and you'll get those other books, too. Or if you have the textbook, you'll go look at some of those other chapters, too.

  • 12:41:22

    YOUNGAnd so the whole book is meant to be consumed even if you don't actually have it assigned and tested explicitly. That's the professor vision. But the student vision is, why are you assigning a 33-chapter book when we're only going to be reading 20 chapters? Just let me buy what we're going to use.

  • 12:41:42

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. David, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy and you're on Twitter, you can join the conversation by using the Tech Tuesday hashtag or sending email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:01

    NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on e-textbooks. We're talking with Eric Frank, co-founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge, which publishes free and open college textbooks. Matt MacInnis is the founder and CEO of Inkling, a company that designs textbooks for iPads. And Jeff Young is a senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he covers technology and writes the "College 2.0" column.

  • 12:44:24

    NNAMDIWe got several responses from our listeners online. We got -- and a Facebook response to, where do you find the best deals on textbooks? Cassandra says, "Renting from the campus bookstore is sometimes the least expensive option." Cardy (sp?) says, "We used and to rent last year. But I'm not sure that it was just cheaper than just purchasing a used book.

  • 12:44:47

    NNAMDI"This year, most books were purchased used -- at the used bookstore on campus -- purchased used at the bookstore on campus." From Twitter, Reid, (sp?) "Do your kids use textbooks? What do you think of the advantages, disadvantages?" Amelia writes, "I use technology so often, my eyes permanently hurt. E-books aren't necessary and take away from the pleasure of reading."

  • 12:45:08

    NNAMDIRosina (sp?) says, "Wow, hadn't even considered e-books for schools, now joining the dinosaur club." Just a few of the responses we've been getting. 800-433-8850. Jeff, what are some of the reasons that students give for using or wanting to use e-textbooks?

  • 12:45:25

    YOUNGWell, one that surprised me is that many students I talked to did it for environmental reasons. They felt that sustainability use is a big issue and that they liked the idea of not killing a tree, so to speak, in having a thick, printed book. Of course, carrying them around, you do hear, you know, lightening your backpack as another reason, though you are carrying around some sort of device to play them on, often a laptop or a tablet, although those are getting lighter.

  • 12:45:52

    YOUNGAnd the students -- when I've talked to students that have had extensive use of them, either because they were required to do it or they were part of some pilot where they didn't choose it, about half of them didn't like it. But half of them loved it and say they didn't expect to.

  • 12:46:06

    YOUNGBut the searching that Matt, I think, mentioned earlier, you know, the highlighting where you can actually search your highlighting and go back to it that way, there are different features that come up when you're in a digital format that maybe students aren't used to studying that way. But then when they realize they are there, they do start to get into that.

  • 12:46:28

    NNAMDICollege students, clever, like to save money wherever they can. Publishers worried about piracy or any other murky legal issues?

  • 12:46:34

    YOUNGPiracy is definitely something that I'm hearing publishers worry about, more so privately than publicly, because they certainly don't want to even point people to the sites where you can, right now, go and download, you know, these pirated copies.

  • 12:46:48

    YOUNGIf it's digital, it's possible, of course, for someone to hack into if there's a digital rights management that's supposed to make it self-destruct. People are finding ways to bypass those. And there are a couple websites that are out there that specifically focus on showing students where they can go download a pirated copy of a textbook.

  • 12:47:09

    YOUNGThe -- a survey that was done about a year ago found that it was only about 6 percent of students who said that they had actually gone out and tried to download a pirated textbook. So I don't think it's absolutely widespread right now, but I think the publishers are watching very nervously.

  • 12:47:24

    NNAMDIMatt MacInnis, have been publishers been talking to you about their concerns about piracy?

  • 12:47:29

    MACINNISWe don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about piracy although it's definitely on the radar. You know, I've seen that the publishers, when they do come across the site that has pirated content available, they'll act pretty quickly to try and have that stuff removed.

  • 12:47:43

    MACINNISIt is, however, something that, when we think about the spectrum of price points that students might be, you know, looking to buy content at anywhere from the most expensive option of, say, a $200 new textbook to a $140 digital textbook to a -- you know, to a $100 rental, all the way down -- we consider zero to be one of the price points in the market because there is some demand for content for free or nothing else. And that's the pirated stuff.

  • 12:48:10

    NNAMDIEric, copyright protections have other implications, too. Why won't students be able to find any pictures of Ewoks in textbooks your company publishes?

  • 12:48:19

    FRANKYeah, I think what -- copyright implications do have a lot to do with the use rights conveyed to the user of that material. And I think, in this case, that generally is more about faculty members than it is about students. And -- so one of the values that we're trying to transfer to the faculty member is the legal right to be able to adapt and modify contents in a textbook.

  • 12:48:45

    FRANKSo instead of a student having to buy individual chapters, a professor could actually just click and delete a chapter that he or she doesn't cover or, better yet, include a local example of a company that students might be able to relate to.

  • 12:48:57

    FRANKBut when you take that approach of wanting it to be licensed under a Creative Commons license, you have to look at all the individual assets within the book and try to use assets that are also openly licensed. And so, in the end, there's no barriers to being able to modify. The good news is that's becoming much easier to do with huge databases of things like images that are openly licensed.

  • 12:49:21

    FRANKYou know, on occasion, we can't find the appropriate thing. And we have to use an all-rights-reserved image, so you can modify around it but not the image itself.

  • 12:49:30

    NNAMDIHere's Mark in Woodbridge, Va. Mark, your turn.

  • 12:49:34

    MARKHi, Kojo. If I take a class in Microsoft Excel or some other software program, the school provides that software to me, probably under a site license. Why not do the same with textbooks? They purchase a site license to the textbook for the students for that term, and they use it until they determine that a new version is providing added value and they want to buy that.

  • 12:49:56


  • 12:49:57

    YOUNGWell, there have been a couple of experiments that we have written about-- and one of them, I think, by Flat World Knowledge -- in sort of selling to the professor of the institution and having the institution pass along that cost as fee to the students. The -- one university that's trying it says that if they can have a bulk buying power, they could maybe bring down the price and negotiate better than the students can individually.

  • 12:50:21

    YOUNGAnd so maybe they can make a better deal if they can do this. But, of course, any required fee will get some pushback from students. In some cases where it's like, well, what if the student was going to already borrow it from a friend or had other plans that they thought they could get around buying it altogether? If you have a fee, then everyone does -- is forced to pay.

  • 12:50:42

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Mark. We move on to Melissa in Purcellville, Va. Melissa, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 12:50:50

    MELISSAHi. Thanks. I'd just like to bring up the point -- I haven't heard you mention -- that there is the initial cost, usually hundreds of dollars, just for the device that you -- that would make it easier and convenient to even use e-books. And I think that it would be slightly elitist, you know, to -- and not give everyone the opportunity if -- other options for...

  • 12:51:15

    NNAMDIGlad you brought that up before I did. Matt MacInnis, by creating books for digital devices, like the iPad, do you risk creating a digital divide of sorts between students who can afford these devices and those who cannot?

  • 12:51:28

    MACINNISI think that there's an element of truth to the concern, that -- you know, you do have to have an iPad to access an Inkling title. And that won't always be the case, but it is today. And it's probably not, you know, a fair comparison to necessarily look at the price of the iPad and add that to the price of the textbook and then make that sort of the base cost.

  • 12:51:49

    MACINNISBecause, of course, the iPad has utility beyond being a textbook reader in many different areas, but there is a real risk. I mean, the cost of higher education continues to increase over time. And if we're not doing a good job of making it easier to buy content on the cheap, to reduce the content cost overall, then we're not going to be offsetting the cost of the hardware.

  • 12:52:11

    MACINNISI mean, that's sort of our focus at Inkling, is making sure that, at the minimum, you know, to the -- despite the comments earlier about the pros and cons of chapter purchase, I mean, I think letting students pay a lot less for their content, the way we do with Inkling, at least offsets some of the costs of the iPad. Just -- you know, just don't drop it 'cause that's going to make it a lot more of an expensive endeavor.

  • 12:52:33

    NNAMDIMelissa, thank you very much for your call. Eric, both of your companies have a sort of wiki component to them. Explain to us the ways in which students and professors alike can contribute to the texts you publish.

  • 12:52:47

    FRANKSure. So one thing we don't think would ever work in the mainstream of academia would be a true wiki approach, where's there's one parent version of a textbook and anybody can come along and make modifications to that. That model has been out there for a long time in Wikibooks and Wikiversity and very little traction. I think what we tried to do is adapt it and say, there's a parent version.

  • 12:53:11

    FRANKIt's by an expert author. It's been extensively peer-reviewed and vetted and professionally developed, illustrated, et cetera. But now it's published under an open license. And I think it's a different model where you're transferring the control to the individual professor, who may choose, or may not choose, to make modifications for his or her classroom. And that's where they can bring real value.

  • 12:53:31

    FRANKThere's no reason for any individual professor to rewrite the principles of economics. But there's real value in a professor in Columbus, Ohio, at Columbus State Community College to travel the state in the summer, taking video of economically displaced workers and including those as real examples of the effects of the current recession, for example.

  • 12:53:49

    FRANKSo we transfer a lot of control, via the license and the platform, to faculty to be able to improve the book and really bring their perspective, not only into the classroom but into the book itself.

  • 12:54:01

    NNAMDIHow do you vet the information that professors or students add, or do they?

  • 12:54:06

    FRANKWe really don't. So we've taken the position that, in higher education, you're making those changes for your classroom. And so you've got the academic freedom in this country to teach a course the way that you choose to teach it. And sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes that may not be such a good thing.

  • 12:54:22

    FRANKBut the principle of academic freedom, I think, is an incredibly strong one and creates a diverse and really advanced system of higher education. So we've predicated our model on top of academic freedom and said, you can make those modifications for your students. Now, to be clear, the original content and anything that's been modified by the professor are demarcated.

  • 12:54:43

    FRANKSo a student reader will know that that was originally the author's work, and this part has been modified or contributed. And I think that is an important element, to maintain some separation there.

  • 12:54:53

    NNAMDIJeff, last year, a number of schools' networks had a hard time handling the influx of iPads on campus. Is that expected to be an issue again this year?

  • 12:55:02

    YOUNGYeah, in the early days of the iPad, which is -- it's -- you have to remember, these products didn't even exist, you know, recently. There was a bit of a glitch on a couple of campus networks, including here in town, in George Washington University, where there was -- it was a technical thing that kept some of the iPads off the network. And I've heard, and we checked in recently, that they've gotten all those sort of kinks worked out.

  • 12:55:22

    YOUNGBut the thing I hear from campus administrators is they're concerned that they're seeing so many students bring so many devices, that -- it used to be you had your one computer that you -- that was expensive that you had, and that was your only way to get on the Internet. But now that iPads and iPhones, the smartphones of all types, are out there, that students might have three, four.

  • 12:55:45

    YOUNGI mean, if their game system also connects to the Internet, they might have, you know, four devices connecting to the campus network. And it's eating up a lot of bandwidth.

  • 12:55:53

    NNAMDIHere's Holly in Baltimore, Md. Holly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:58

    HOLLYYeah, I'm not a professor calling. I'm a parent calling. I just registered my daughter for a community college class. She's still in high school. We had a little sticker shock when we saw the cost of her Spanish textbook. I did some research to see if I could find a used book or anything less expensive. But they had forewarned me that the manufacturer actually bundled that especially for them.

  • 12:56:24

    HOLLYSo I could not find it. I found that they did have it -- a link to a textbook online through, I believe. And when I called the professor to ask if that was a good option, she actually recommended not doing that because she would be referring to pages in the class, and it would be a little bit tricky for her to have to get access to that page through her computer.

  • 12:56:50

    NNAMDIWell, as far as what our guests have been saying, not as tricky as you might think, right, Jeff?

  • 12:56:58

    YOUNGI think it does depend. Again, it goes back to the variety of options. It depends on whether you're getting a book that is developed by Inkling, which is very native to the iPad or the digital format or some of these that have been sort of thrown out there as more PDFs. And you do find a variety. I don't know the title that is being talked about specifically here.

  • 12:57:17

    YOUNGBut it's very interesting if the -- you know, if you do have professors that are recommending against it. I think the way it is, in most cases, it's up to the student right now to pick whether they want digital or print. But professors certainly weigh in on either assigning or recommending one format or the other.

  • 12:57:33

    NNAMDIWe're just about out of time. But, very quickly, college students come to campus from school systems that are, by and large, still using traditional textbooks. Do you think e-textbooks will have to make the move to K-12 classrooms before they can be fully adopted in higher education, Jeff?

  • 12:57:50

    YOUNGYou're seeing some examples. There was a recent case in the Fairfax County Public Schools, where they're recommending an online social studies textbook. And I think that is what a lot of people say. Then it'll catch on. If student grow up with this technology, they'll look for it in college.

  • 12:58:03

    NNAMDIJeff Young is a senior writer with the Chronicle of Higher Education. He covers technology and writes the "College 2.0" column. Jeff, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:10

    YOUNGThanks for having me.

  • 12:58:11

    NNAMDIEric Frank is the co-founder and CEO of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of free and open college textbooks. Eric, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:18

    FRANKThank you.

  • 12:58:19

    NNAMDIAnd Matt MacInnis is the founder and CEO of Inkling, a company that designs textbooks for iPads. Matt MacInnis, thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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