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Textbook Publishers Face Digital Challenges

It seems it's getting a little scary to be a textbook publisher in the digital age.

At least that was the mood at a meeting that the school division of the Association of American Publishers, the industry's trade group, held recently in Arlington, Va.

Publishers who gathered at the one-day "technology summit" on Oct. 2 contemplated a rash of challenges to the decades-long dominance of school textbooks over other curriculum materials and methods, and to their historical grip on school budgets.

Use of open content, virtual schools, and "authentic" content from original sources were among the upstart trends that attendees jotted onto notepads, as they listened to the researchers, state and school district representatives, and some of their own colleagues on the podium.

“Virtual schools are not using print textbooks,” Liz Glowa, a Washington-based researcher who has served as a consultant for the Southern Regional Education Board, said in a presentation at the meeting. She added that five million K-12 students, most of them high schoolers, have taken at least one online course.

Making the case that growth of virtual education will keep accelerating was Michael Horn, a co-author of the much-talked-about new book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. The book predicts that by 2019, half of all high school classes will be taught over the Internet.

One publisher, Steve Dowling, the president of Pearson School Companies, told the hall of about 200 attendees that the book's chapter on the basal textbook market made him feel "like you have a target on your back." His company, like other traditional publishers, has invested in creating digital versions of textbooks and other educational products.

Dowling said his former boss liked to describe the textbook industry as "a castle with a moat around it." That's no longer true, he acknowledged.

Also chipping away at that fortress are classroom delivery of original source material and teacher-created "open content," some speakers representing school districts and states said.

Schools can't individualize education with printed textbooks, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Wilhoit observed that textbook publishers have an "interesting dilemma," because investing in creating advanced digital curriculum products will eventually cannibalize sales of their old, still-profitable, print products.

Even so, several educators reassured publishers that school districts still trust and value the quality and vetting process in traditional textbook publishing.

"We need your content," one educator said, while urging publishers to roll out flexible, digital versions of their products, so schools could purchase just the sections they need and combine those materials with others, using learning management systems.

Joe Hairston, who runs the Baltimore County Public Schools, one of the nation's 25 largest school districts, was adamant that publishers must step up their game if they want his business.

The superintendent said he has cultivated partnerships with defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. because “technology goes to the military first. They hang onto it for 20 years, then give it to the commercial sector until they are done with it.” Only then does the technology filter into products for education.

"I want to cut out the middle man," Hairston said.

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