Interview Series – Rob Reynolds, Ph.D. – Next Is Now

Dr. Rob Reynolds is the Director of Direct Digital, a service of MBS Direct, LLC (a former employer of mine). You can read Rob’s thoughts at his personal blog.

I was first introduced to Rob’s writing with a special report he did called “Digital Textbooks Reaching the Tipping Point in the U.S. Higher Education “.  Expanding on the throughts from this report, Rob authored the book “The Future of Learning Content”  where he explores digital textbooks, open content, Apple and more.

Jeff – Dr. Reynolds, Thank you for your time. I look forward to understanding more about the tipping point for digital textbooks so lets jump right into things. Your research indicates that digital textbook sales will account for about 6% of the market in 2012 and 11% in 2013, to what do you contribute that growth to? Is it more titles being available or more students willing to try the digital format?

Dr. Reynolds – There are a number of trends driving the growth of digital textbooks in Higher Education. The biggest factor is cost. Increasingly, students are looking for lower prices alternatives to new print titles. And, while digital textbooks are not necessarily the cheapest option (used books with some form of guaranteed buyback or the general winner here), digital is a consistently less expensive solution and it is convenient. Another important factor, as you mention, is title availability. Because of issues with rights clearance and a lack of clear market strategy, most large textbook publishers have only recently begun making most of their front list titles available in digital format. Having complete title coverage will certainly hasten the adoption of digital.

Some of the other trends that I discuss in the book include the popularity of tablets and smartphones, a continued increase in online shipping by students, the evolution of e-textbook reader software applications, and the textbook rental market. This last item is actually an important motivation for textbook publishers to make the shift to digital.

Jeff – Many argue that until Digital Books are significantly cheaper than a physical book the market will still push towards print. What do you think is the tipping point in terms of price?

Dr. Reynolds – While cost is a leading factor in consumer behavior around digital textbooks, it is but one of many. We will see the current growth patterns continue for the next several years even with current pricing patterns around print and digital. Now, if the price of digital learning content drops beyond certain thresholds, we will definitely see an uptick int hat growth. And, keep in mind that this price drop may not be (will likely not be) driven by traditional publishers. Low-cost alternative publishers such as Flat World Knowledge, Textbook Media, and Soomo, as well as a growing open textbook catalog, are gaining increasing traction and this sector of the market will grow significantly over the next five years.

Regarding tipping point for price, I think it’s safe to say that $40 will likely become a maximum value for stand-alone textbook products in the future. It is also possible that traditional publishers will adhere to this pricing for many of their core stand-alone textbook products. Of course, their primary interest is in selling fully integrated technology products – e-textbook, assessments, media, adaptive learning programs, and learning outcomes – and redefining a simple textbook as only a part of what instructors and institutions need to be successful. Integrated technology products allow publishers to target the more lucrative enterprise sales market and eliminate both the used and rental markets.

Jeff – You revised your report to show the impact of Apple’s iPad. Is that the game changer that is necessary and will programs such as the iBook publishing suite speed things up even more?

Dr. Reynolds – The iPad is indeed a game changer. This coming fall approximately 22%-25% of all incoming freshmen in 2-year and 4-year institutions will have tablet devices. Most of those will be iPads. Of course, the overall tablet craze will only increase with the release of Google’s low-cost iPad-challenger this summer and Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablets in October.

Regarding the iBooks Author application and other digital publishing platforms such as Inkling Habitat, the ease of production and distribution can only have a positive impact on the growth of digital textbooks. That said, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, writing or constructing textbooks in their current form is a sizable task, even with an intuitive technology platform. Second, and related to the first, I think we will see a pretty dramatic shift towards the disaggregation of textbook content. This will lead us to assign a greater importance to digital authoring tools that facilitate the mashup of disparate content types and sources.

Jeff – Content is still king and even with the growth of Open Education Content the publishers still hold the rights to the content being used in higher education. Is the final battle over content or platform. For our readers content would be the physical content included in a textbook while the platform would be the system used to deliver the digital content such as Chegg Digtial, CourseSmart, Kno, Inkling or Dr. Reynolds platform Direct Digital.

Dr. Reynolds – My experience has been that distribution platforms come and go. I’ve been designing such platforms for reading and learning for more than a decade now and have witnessed this rapid evolution first hand. LMS platforms are changing right before our eyes and digital reading and distribution will continue to evolve as well.

As I discuss in my book, the modern textbook is simply the result of needing a convenient and logical construct for holding collections of learning materials. I don’t think there can be any doubt that this particular construct will also evolve (as will the associated business models). This evolution will champion content, most certainly, but will push publishers and distributors to revenue streams that are driven by services rather than content ownership per se.

Jeff – If you were a student and only had enough money to buy a single electronic device which would you suggest to purchase? An iPad, Android Table, PC, Mac, Kindle or something else? Why?

Dr Reynolds – While I’m not enrolled in a college or university, I am always a student and take online courses all the time. I think the answer depends on what you want to accomplish. If all you really want is a great content consumption device, I think the Kindle Fire is hard to beat. I also can’t wait to see what Google comes up with in the $149-$199 price range. If, however, you are looking for a productivity device, the iPad is hard to beat. It has a better app ecosystem, is more intuitive in its design, and there is a large group of peripheral manufacturers that support the device. I like the concept of the new Galaxy Note smartphone (with its stylus), and think the Windows 8 tablets released this fall will provide great productivity as well.

Jeff – Thank you for your time. I want to share with readers that if they want to read your fully revised report they can find it in Chapter 6 of your book, which they can obtain free here. Reports from past years (2010 and 2011), can be found at here (2010) and here (2011) and respectively. You cover a lot of ground and we only touched on a few small issues. Anything else you would like to add?

Dr Reynolds – I think the most important thing to realize is the rapid change inherent in the textbook industry today and the volatile nature of the overall market. There are some definitive realities we will all be facing over the coming years, but the most certain one is that textbooks as we know them today will have evolved significantly by the end of the current decade. Business models will change and so will some of the major players. Content will continue to matter a great deal but will be more disaggregated and personalized, both for instructors and students.

Comments (3)

  1. harrykeller

    Many good insights. I think that things will go ever farther than Dr. Reynolds suggests, but that’s the longer future. The only question is how fast will it all happen.

    1. TextbookGuru (Post author)

      I beleive Dr. Reynolds would agree, which is why he recvised his numbers and trys to keep them up to date. New technology is a game changer we can’t predict. As the performace of a mobile network gets better and the devices get cheaper things can move quicker. But as mentioned, the real tipping point will come when the publishers lower the price to make e more competitive with used book

      1. harrykeller

        I think that the textbook publishers will not provide the tipping point. I expect it to come from an unexpected direction that will involve an entirely different way to use content.

        Today, we see an increasing move toward more kinetic content. Eventually, kinetic will give way to interactive. At this time, the stuff people term “interactive” is not very much so.

        At the same time, expect software to be capable of tailoring learning experience to the individual sufficiently well that learning will be more efficient and effective.


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