Sat Jan 28, 2012

No-One Cares About the College Bookstore

On yesterday’s Hypercritical, John Siracusa discussed a recent post by McKay Thomas which argues that Apple is following a “brilliant strategy” in education of “going high school first [and] applying the heat to university textbook publishers and bookstores”. John Gruber linked to it as well. Here’s Thomas:

The new iBook textbooks are being marketed in a way that circumvents the university bookstore. Brilliant. Go right to the student in high school. Make them a true believer. Give them an amazing textbook experience starting in 9th grade. By the time these students hit university in 4 more years they aren’t going to know how to not use an iPad while studying.

I don’t think this is right. The bookstore isn’t nearly as important as Thomas imagines. In fact, colleges are much more open to adoption of new technology and curriculum than grade schools for the simple reason that university faculty decide the content of their own courses. This isn’t to say every worthwhile innovation is widely and rapidly taken up, or that everything that diffuses is worthwhile. But when it comes to textbooks, colleges are far more porous than schools.

The key issue is, who decides what textbooks and devices will be used? In public schools, there is a bureaucratic process that sets required texts for entire districts, even whole states. Before they can get kids used to having iPads, Apple needs to get iPads into their hands, and that means engaging with and obtaining the approval of the often strongly politicized curriculum-setting bureaucracy. They may well succeed in doing this, of course. But they must convince administrators, school boards, and state-wide textbook authorities that the iPad is the future. It’s not that Apple can’t do it, but gaining entry to this market necessarily involves winning over these quite powerful gatekeepers.

The situation at colleges is very different. College bookstores make a lot of cash from textbook sales, but this is irrelevant because it’s not accompanied by any means of control. Middlemen may skim a tidy profit, but they are far easier to disintermediate than true gatekeepers. Again, who decides what textbooks and devices will be used? For textbooks, it’s not the bookstore. It’s not the University’s central administration, either. Individual faculty decide. I get to assign the required texts for my classes, up to and including deciding not to assign a book at all, or deciding to write and require my own. (This is something now made easier by iBooks Author.) A consequence is that there is far more opportunity at the college level for the textbook market to shift itself via the uncentralized, independent choices by faculty (to assign books) and students (to purchase hardware). If my students have iPads and I assign an iBooks-authored textbook, the college bookstore would simply be bypassed. No-one would care. Or rather, the people who cared wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. College stores make most of their money from merchandising anyway. If there really are universities that are, in Thomas’s words, “fighting hard for the publishers to maintain the current model” where the bookstore is the middleman and profit-center, I’d like to hear about them. I’ve taught at a large public University and now at a smaller private school. In neither case is there any means by which the school administration or college bookstore can intervene prescriptively in textbook selection. It’s a core principle of academic freedom and university governance that the faculty control the curriculum, and that obviously includes choosing which books to assign.

For devices, the situation is a little different but the same basic priciple applies. As a rule, individual faculty can’t require students to buy iPads as a condition of participation in class. Some universities do require students purchase a laptop, and most at least strongly encourage it. But college administrators are not generally in a position to forbid students from buying an iPad as well as, or instead of, a laptop. They are not gatekeepers of the sort we see at the K-12 level. So, again, while Apple will be happy to partner with colleges that wish to promote iPad use amongst students, they don’t have to worry about resistance of the sort Thomas has in mind.

It’s worth noting that colleges have witnessed two broad changes relevant to the iPad’s prospects. First, over the past twenty years desktops and then laptops have diffused to the point where most college students now own or have access to one. And over the past decade, many schools have seen a second shift as students have begun to choose Macs over Windows PCs, without any centralized decision being made to prefer one over the other. A similar transition could easily happen with the iPad, if students and teachers judge it a compelling enough product and buy accordingly. There would be an intermediate phase—we used to make paper copies of readings available in course reserves or offprint libraries, then for a time those existed alongside PDFs, and now we assume everyone has a computer to read them on. A complete shift to iPads might not occur, of course. I think the main barrier is the amount of long-form written work college students have to do, which makes it harder to rely solely on an iPad. But that’s not my point here. What matters is that at the college level there’s no gatekeeper willing and able to forbid students from purchasing iPads or keep faculty from assigning textbooks (not necessarily exclusively) from the iBooks store. There is such a gatekeeper at grade-school level. When it comes to the contestability of the textbook market, universities are much more porous and disaggregated than grade schools. The iPad may well win the hearts and minds of kids, but first it will have to get past the curriculum bureaucrats. For this reason it makes little sense to say Apple has brilliantly chosen to begin with the easier, more open K-12 market because they can’t yet take on the College Bookstore.