The Cyberschool Challenge
With few electronic textbooks to choose from, cyberschools are forging ahead with efforts to develop their own courseware. Traditional textbook publishers stand to lose.
New book markets are emerging on the Internet that don't require readers 18 and older. Among them: education. The explosion of 'cyberschools' (also known as 'e-schools') is revolutionizing how educational materials are manufactured and distributed.
Cyberschools have been growing in size and scope since they first appeared in the late 1990s. The Distance Learning Resource Network, a non-profit agency dedicated to improving education, pegs the number of students in online classrooms between 40,000 and 50,000 for the 2002-03 school year.
Florida might have had trouble getting presidential election votes tallied due to its archaic manual system, but it has been nothing less than a pioneer with online schools. The Florida Virtual School (FVS) network has 13,000 students enrolled for the 2002-03 year, making it one of the largest electronic school districts in the U.S.
Unlike the home schooling movement, an outgrowth of parents' objections over school curriculums, online schools are evolutionary, not revolutionary. They provide many sound reasons for kids to attend online classes, and a good number are home schoolers. The reasons usually cited by parents: flexibility, and universal accessibility to courses.
For starters, cyberschools provide ready access to a broad selection of courses, the scope of which is simply not available in most schools. A school district in one well-to-do town might have a dozen advanced placement courses—the kind college admissions officers like to see—while schools across town might have only one or two.
And kids combating illnesses or disabilities often can't regularly attend a traditional school, if at all. Cyberschools provide a fantastic alternative, enabling these physically disadvantaged students to keep up with their peers through online classes, as their schedules permit.
TEXTBOOK PUBLISHING THREAT
With these and other reasons driving more students to choose logons over bus rides, the need for electronic textbooks will continue to grow. That's a bellwether for leading textbook publishers, such as McGraw-Hill; Addison Wesley; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; and all the rest.
Failure to respond to this small but undeniably expanding army could mean the difference between success or failure in the future of electronic publishing. Indeed, cyberschool administrators overwhelmingly eschew traditional hardcover textbooks, opting instead for purely electronic materials.
That's due, in part, because traditional textbooks are bulky, and expensive to ship, says Tom Layton, online learning consultant with Clarity Innovations Inc., in Eugene, Ore. Layton is also the founder of CyberSchool, the first public school distance learning program to offer high school credit courses on the Internet.
"You have one kid in one part of one state, another in Florida, and a third across town," Layton says. "To find those books and purchase them is difficult, so the process takes a long time, perhaps a month or longer."
Then there's the cost of mailing books. For Florida's FVS, shipping a full curriculum's worth of textbooks to 13,000 students would add up to a whopper of a postage bill—and then the e-school has to get the book back at the end of the term.
"Textbooks are big, heavy, and expensive," says Phyllis Lentz, director of global services for Florida's FVS. "If we buy a resource for every student in a course and ship it to that student, that can be very costly. Because we're a public school, we need to collect those resources back, and that can be real expensive if they don't send back [a bunch of] $68 books."
E-school managers also see themselves as pioneering a revolutionary model that's more than simply an electronic version of brick and mortar schools. It's a rare opportunity to rewrite the rules for developing curriculums, content, courseware, and teacher/student communications.
"One of the reasons [for shunning textbooks] is that our teachers develop the courses according to the standards in a course, and didn't want the textbook to drive what the course content would be," Lentz says.
In a nutshell, e-school teachers prefer digital content over traditional paper-based books because they're determined to do things differently. But the ability to gain almost total control over their courseware is appealing to educators on all sides of the e-school equation.
Indeed, teachers in traditional schools are increasingly turning to easy-to-use electronic publishing tools to build their own e-content. As with e-schools, e-content developed 'by teachers, for teachers' has enormous potential to undermine textbook sales.
"More and more teachers are using Web sites the way teachers [once] used film strips or videos to enhance instruction," says Katherine Endacott, president and CEO of Class.com, a developer of courseware for cyberschools.
At CoolSchool (Cyber Oregon Online School), in Eugene, Ore., instructors electronically author their own courseware, which can run 400 pages or more. Teachers at Florida's Virtual School are also developing their own multimedia courseware.
One reason teachers are authoring their own content is the dearth of quality electronic materials available from the major textbook publishers. E-books in general proved to be a false start.
E-books from major publishers often require proprietary readers, and have digital rights restrictions that encumber their use, such as limits on how many copies can be printed or shared.
That maintains the status quo among textbook publishers, but doesn't sit well with cyberschool administrators and educators.
"E-books didn't seem to change [the publisher's] operations or delivery as much as people thought it would," Endacott says. "There's a vested interest in keeping things the way they are."
That's not to say teachers at cyberschools want to write their own materials. Most are doing it by necessity. Cyberschool educators say they would prefer to see more support from traditional textbook publishers, although they don't expect that to happen anytime soon. They also want the electronic versatility that paper-based books can't have.
"I want e-books that teachers can put together, and I want smart e-books with supported text," says Layton of Clarity Innovations. "I want them searchable. I want supported text, so kids who click on a word can get a pronunciation and definition. And I'd like it customizable, so teachers can choose which chapters they want, and not pay for chapters they don't use."
BOOK PUBLISHERS RESPOND
Not all traditional textbook publishers are sitting on the sidelines. Some are getting the religion. At a recent meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), every publisher offered some form of online resource to accompany their books.
"Instead of textbooks with static information, they were, in some cases, multimedia-enriched," says FVS's Lentz.
Harcourt Interactive Technology, a subsidiary of Harcourt Inc., Roslyn Heights, N.Y., is among those offering augmentative electronic products tied to traditional textbooks. The publisher unveiled iLearningOnline Interactive, an Internet-based reading assessment system aligned with state standards.
The Web-based software provides a diagnostic tool that measures students' reading comprehension. Teachers can also assess their educational effectiveness on the site.
Pearson Prentice Hall in Upper Saddle River, N.J., recently launched a pilot program with the state of Florida to help students in grades seven, nine, and 11 improve their reading comprehension. Students used Pearson's iText, a computer-based interactive textbook, to improve their reading comprehension and grammar skills.
Meanwhile, executives of Jones Knowledge Inc., in Englewood, Colo., said they would make the company's online learning platform, dubbed E-Education, available to schools free of charge. The company can afford to offer the free service, as other businesses, such as the Jones International University online college, underwrite it.
Companies outside the textbook publishing industry are also getting in on the act. Statistical database software vendor SAS Institute Inc., in Cary, N.C., is offering SAS in School, which provides a number of products for curriculum development. One such product is Curriculum Pathways, a Web-based curriculum planning program for teachers; and interactive software for teaching science, math, language, and history.
But if these publishers are getting the cyberschool religion, they're not yet true believers. Virtually all of these are designed more for teachers and administrators. When it comes to textbooks, e-books, CD-ROMs, or other electronic courseware for cyberschools, the textbook publishing establishment simply isn't in the game.
PARTNERING IN CYBERSPACE
Class.com's Endacott hopes her organization and other electronic courseware providers will build bridges with traditional publishers to combine their core expertise for the benefit of cyberschools and cyberstudents.
"What we see long term is a collaboration between groups like ours and any number of [textbook] publishers," Endacott says. "What we do is different in how we serve customers [than traditional publishers]. The success of companies like ours will point the way for [traditional publishers]."
Lentz would like to see publishers make the books they've written and published over the years be made available electronically as well as in print.
"They can make their textbook material available as an online subscription," she says. "We'd be willing to pay for that, because we pay for online subscriptions to some parts of a book. But we wouldn't pay for the entire book, because we wouldn't use a textbook in its entirety; only parts of it."
The message from cyberschools and cyber-educators is clear: they have a different way of thinking, working, and teaching—one that requires a completely different type of educational material.
That could mean a completely different type of textbook publisher. While mainstream textbook publishers aren't reacting negatively to cyberschools, they aren't rushing to create a new market, either.
Rather than dampen acceptance of electronic courseware, this wait-and-see approach is simply setting the stage for a new generation of independent e-publishers and self-published content.
In their unwillingness to embrace cyber-textbook publishing and tackle the related issues head on, traditional publishers might be ceding the industry leadership they have worked for decades to attain.
- Andy Patrizio