Textbooks vs. Education Technology – Clash of Paradigms

The worlds of textbook publishers and education technology companies are colliding. The market is driving this convergence – schools have had technology around long enough that they have figured out how it can integrate in with existing practices. Yet the list of successful educational products that blend print and technology is few and far between.

I moved into the publishing world 4 years ago from ed tech. From my perspective on both sides of this fence the problem has more to do with the vendors clashing paradigms than with customer demand.

The paradigms are radically different along several key vectors and reconciling these will be the central challenge as Riverdeep and Houghton merge and as Pearson absorbs Harcourt (announced today).

Follow me to the flip for a more detailed look at this problem.

What follows includes some gross generalizations – I realize that their are good exceptions to just about everything I say below. My goal is to capture the general nature of the clashing paradigms.

Product Development

Textbook Publishers – Over the last 100 years publishers have developed elaborate processes to create books that are 99.9% accurate and complete upon publication. Their expertise in this area runs deep and the culture reinforces the need to get products as close to perfect as possible.

Ed Tech Vendors – The name of the game in technology is to get a product usable, launch, and then iterate your way to success. Good enough is the marching order. Culturally they are ok with shipping products with “known problems” or bugs as long as they don’t interfere with the core functionality. In fact there are people at software companies whose job is designing workarounds for these “undocumented features.”
Product Lifecycle

Textbook Publishers – Due to the adoption cycle textbook publishers are used to finishing a product and then not touching it for 5-7 years. Their editorial and sales departments operate in a boom and bust cycle that waxes and wanes with the overlapping state schedules of adoption. At the end of the lifecycle the product is usually ditched so that a new copyright can be created.

Ed Tech Vendors – Because the technology providers have largely avoided the adoption rat race their products are typically updated annually. Newer web based products are updated dailyforever. Established products are more valuable in software so the product isn’t scrapped or renamed on revisions. The work involved is often of the same magnitude as creating a new book, but the public face is one of continuity and product maturity rather than newness.

Sales Models

Textbook Publishers – An adoption is typically a hunting license with a zero sum outcome. 2-5 publishers are approved and they then compete for a fixed block of funds – that are earmarked specifically to print materials. As a result once the adoption is won the economics of marginal cost take over and the companies find themselves in a race to break even. Inducements are layered on to the print materials as “free with order” and include valuable products like software and expensive services like professional development and product training. People value what they pay for and software in this context is seen as a low value freebie. Sampling is also an expensive proposition – sending in a complete set of materials for a full program can involve a specially constructed box that weighs up to 50 lbs.

Ed Tech Vendors – Because they generally compete outside the adoption arena ed tech vendors are more likely to charge for anything they can. Their business model demands it. And they sell software and the support that goes with it, it isn’t a freebie it is how they survive. Another key difference is that software is inexpensive to sample – just let someone download a crippled copy – so sampling isn’t seen as a huge deal, but also isn’t taken as seriously as it should be in a market that thrives on reference selling.


Textbook Publishing – Once the books are printed and sold support is seen largely as a problem for the warehouse. Editorial, Sales, and Marketing focus on the next new thing.

Ed Tech Vendors – Support is revenue stream for most software companies, particularly with the new web based products with an annual subscription. As a result it takes a more central role in the organization and concerns of the business.


Textbook Publishers – Textbooks are a classic long tail business and in the publishers are experts at managing and milking what they call their back list (typicall products with a copyright more than 2 years old). The large publishers all have SKUs than run into 5 figures and the most profitable part of their business are the older products. As a result the marketing tends to be less focused and more generic or highly targeted at new products. They also do a pretty good job of recognizing that a wide range of materials work in the classroom including print and technology.

Ed Tech Vendors – Many of these vendors have single product line and as a result are extremely focused in their marketing. The other big difference is that many ed tech companies have been on a mission to replace either the textbook or the teacher. As a recovering practitioner of this approach my perspective is that it is a fools errand. Nothing goes away – new tools get added to the mix but textbooks in one form or another will be with us as long as people need to learn.


Textbook Publishers – They are in the business because they care deeply about books. They have a passion for the subjects they publish for (reading, math, etc.) and they work dilligently to introduce products that support classroom teachers. Their employees (across the business) are mostly comprised of people who are not comfortable with technology – in fact many are downright threatened by it.

Ed Tech Vendors – They are in the business because they care deeply about technology, that passion frequently is more important than the particular content area they are targeting. A technology product is more valuable if it can be re-purposed in different subjects – generally speaking a book just can’t do that. Another mistake that ed tech companies make is they get caught up in the whiz bang and loose site of the mission of their customer which is learning. The publishers beat them at this game most of the time.

With such different paradigms that stretch across their business is it possible that these two worldviews will ever meet? I think so, the market is going to force it upon everyone. How this can happen will be the focus of future entries in this blog.

An additional article in this series is available here.


One response to “Textbooks vs. Education Technology – Clash of Paradigms”

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