Do textbooks still matter?

Product Oct 09, 2020

Since we first started Mathspace 10 years ago, we’ve been focused on disrupting the traditional textbook paradigm.

So it might surprise you to hear my response to the question of whether or not we need textbooks is a lot more nuanced than I once thought. Teachers need something that will form the backbone of their class instruction and practice - and for most teachers, that’s what the textbook best provides.

Today digital resources provide interactive manipulations that immerse students in the learning while adaptive learning technology delivers the content that’s most appropriate to the student’s learning level. So why can’t these digital resources replace textbooks?

In order to find out, I made myself uncomfortable and sought out the feedback of teachers who were strong opponents of using Mathspace as a core resource. I had often dismissed such teachers as being resistant to change or not technologically savvy, but I was wrong.

We found they all had different reasons for using a textbook, but a few common themes emerged. Of course, there were the usual (but nonetheless relevant) issues around student equity - unequal access to devices and internet connectivity makes print options mandatory. The most interesting insight, however, was that textbooks gave students more opportunity to show off their creativity because students can respond in any way they want on paper. Something about the digital experience while encouraging creativity at times was stifling it at other times and teachers just wanted students to step away from their screens and doodle on paper.

Textbooks remain a very important learning tool. Still the dominant resource used by most schools, textbooks are trusted.

So we started asking: How can we enhance (rather than replace) traditional textbooks?

This year we’re launching our new digital textbooks product across Years 7-12. These textbooks combine the power of modern interactive learning with the focus, rigour and accessibility of traditional textbooks. They combine printable worksheets with tech features, like tracking how long students have spent engaging with an interactive lesson.

But the real innovation will be in our pricing model...

Let’s go back to how most schools traditionally purchase textbooks.

Schools would generally purchase textbooks once every 5-7 years and lend them out to students. Principals would set aside a budget for this big once in 5-year event when textbooks would either be wearing out or a curriculum change meant it was time to purchase new textbooks. Publishers would charge $50-70 for textbooks and then knock on the door again 5 years later.

As we’ve moved to digital delivery school funding mechanisms and textbook publishers have evolved a little but not far enough. Typically, textbook/digital bundles still cost $50-70 and often digital access codes are provided so the digital textbooks can be reused over multiple years.

Today we live and operate in a subscription economy. Providers across almost every sector have moved towards subscription-based pricing models. Take Netflix and Spotify as examples.

The beauty of subscription services is that they align incentives for both the consumer and the provider. The low friction to change between providers keeps them accountable to continuously improve their offering in order to earn their revenue year on year.

But educational publishing has taken a long time to catch up to the innovation you get into direct to consumer models. There are large upfront production costs to build a quality textbook and so the incentives haven’t been in place for publishers to slowly earn that revenue over an extended period.

The result has been that schools continue to make a huge financial commitment upfront for static materials. The ramifications go beyond school budgets and seep into curriculum reform. It is very difficult for educational authorities to make curriculum reform when schools have already invested so heavily in static textbooks.

I think it’s unacceptable that we could be stifling innovation in teaching and learning due to an outdated model for purchasing resources. So we have decided that rather than charging $50-$70 upfront to reflect the production costs that have gone into the creation of these textbooks, we will be amortising the cost over the expected lifetime through an annual subscription to the complete library of 7-12 textbooks at just $10 per student per year.

For a better understanding of our pricing matrix, reach out to one of our Ed-Tech Consultants here.

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