iTunes and Textbooks

Caveman in TunnelWhy can’t teachers buy lessons like people buy songs off of iTunes? Are publishers at risk of irrelevance if they don’t proactively solve this problem for their customers?

I have noticed that my music habits have changed dramatically over the past 5-6 years. With the advent of iTunes I was no longer bound to buying albums – I could sample and just buy the songs that sounded good to my ears. Most albums have 2-3 good songs, several so-so songs, and a couple of clunkers. I only want the good stuff thank you very much.

Musicians put a huge amount of energy into creating albums that presented a sweep of music in just the right thematic sequence. Decades of practice dictated that this was something that customers wanted. Only – once they had a real choice – they didn’t. It was vanity not reality.

Are textbooks and other “comprehensive instructional materials” the same? Teachers have “lifted the best and ignored the rest” since the first textbook was published, so anecdotally they are very similar.

But publishers pride themselves on providing a “coherent” schema in their materials. They regard this as a huge part of the value they add to the process. Like musicians they can fool themselves because there are no affordable alternatives (in time or money) – yet.

Will textbooks suffer the kind of profitability collapse that the music industry has gone through as the business model shifted? I honestly don’t know. One thing the textbook publishers have on their side is time – education moves more slowly than the consumer market. But that shouldn’t lull publishers into thinking they can avoid the central question through the usual lobbying, legislation, and front list development. It just means they may have time to adapt before they become irrelevant.

Here are some links for additional reading on this topic.


iTunes U is Apple’s foray into this – but it is mostly at the lecture level for students – from what I can tell it is not optimized for teachers to collect, manage, and share – yet. Apple is probably the furthest along with this – which given their role in transforming the music industry should give all the publishers pause.

Hotchalk is taking a stab at this with their site.

McGraw-Hill has experimented with iTunes University.

MyScribe claims to be iTunes for textbooks – but you still have to buy the whole dang book.

Adaptive Curriculum (a client) is providing atomized content – they have hundreds of science and math activities that can stand on their own and be integrated easily with other materials. Their business model is to sell a subscription to the whole collection rather than the individual bits.

If you know of more projects in this area please let us all know in the comments.

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2 responses to “iTunes and Textbooks”

  1. Doug Stein says:

    I found the posting very interesting (not the least because I’m evaluating Adaptive Curriculum with one of *my* clients). Small world!
    Some thoughts:
    1) Textbook publishers make a big deal about “scope and sequence”. In a world of learning objects, “scope and composability” is what’s valuable:
    a. Scope – so you don’t have to execute a zillion microtransactions to get everything you need.

    b. Composability – so you can tie high quality objects together easily without having to author a lot of gristle (connective tissue).

    2) Content development firms will work from “concept maps” – inherently nonlinear diagrams describing connections among concepts and learning experiences.

    3) The above two items support subscription models. Customers buy into a stream of development that fills in the concept maps. Firms delivering such subscriptions can choose to buy or build depending on where the expertise resides.

    4) Subscriptions will include content from multiple authors; authors will be compensated from a usage-based share of the “royalty pool”. This model will give authors incentives to stay close to the usage and recommendation (and effectiveness!!) data since better content will get used more (and pay more).

    As you say, the publishers have a little time before their bulky books are digitized and atomized. The bigger challenge will be moving from multi-year batch processes to continuous sense-and-respond development. The last jurisdictions to benefit will be adoption states; this is fitting because they and the publishers collaborated to erect barriers against nimble effective content development!
    More from a follow up email:
    One thing I forgot to mention is that Rhapsody (in music) might have the license model that works for schools and publishers. They charge a flat rate to subscribers and divvy up royalties using careful logging of “airplay”. The benefit of subscription models is that they are easier to budget for schools (and generate predictable revenues for publishers). This allows schools to level-fund year to year and allows publishers to incrementally improve and add content. No more “N+1th edition” of trivial changes just to refresh the revenue. The folks who’ll resist this the most are those who think of knowledge as a fixed and unchanging corpus that can be “correlated” (once), reviewed (once), and sold (once per adoption cycle).

  2. Mark says:

    Promethean Planet which is a 160,000 strong community around Promethean’s classroom technology has been doing this a while with a variety of Publishers – mainly focused on learning objects in the formats that the teachers use with their Interactive Whiteboards.

    Most if free at the moment and the is very a healthy exchange of lessons that are reworked and modified endlessly by teachers. They all map to state standards, etc.
    Scholastic are just one of several pubslishers who are selling “chunks” of learning to this channel.
    The points made in the previous post are key though – too small a granularisation merely adds more burden to the teacher to organise – so although there are granualar assets / resource banks for lesson developers – most of what teachers really want to share are lessons or worked up activities that they modify slighly to suite their needs rather than have to rebuild from scratch
    The forum membership at Promethean Planet are usually very repponsive to questions.