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   HomeArticles / Teaching With Technology / Supply And Demand

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Supply and Demand
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)

Five seemingly unrelated facts arrived at my desk this morning:

  • The State of Maine has purchased 40,000 laptop computers for its middle school students, and is about to do the same for its high-schoolers. Soon every student from grades 7-12 will sport a laptop, wirelessly connected to the Internet, at school and at home.
  • The two largest textbook publishers, Pearson and Harcourt, are in the midst of a long-term plan to publish all of their learning materials online, and to sell them to schools and students by subscription.
  • A committee of the French Ministry of Education has proposed the development of a system whereby teaching and learning materials would be numerisé (digitized) and organized on the Web for all of the country's teachers and students to use.
  • The faculty of the University of Nantes, where I am working, is demanding the ability for each teacher to publish all of his or her course materials online and accessible to students over an Intranet.
  • The Blackboard company, that developed the CourseInfo system for organizing teachers' instructional documents online, is preparing its initial public offering and its expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

These facts taken together portend a sea of change in the way we organize and access the materials we use for teaching and learning. They show how the laws of supply and demand are acting in their natural and inevitable manner to shift the 500-year tradition of textbooks toward an online future.


On the demand side, we have the teachers who are clamoring for a more efficient way to provide materials to their students. They do not wish to saddle their students with a five-kilogram textbook that costs more than $50. But neither do they want to turn to the copy machine, the course packet, and the reserve shelf, which are more work for them and much less useful to students. They demand from the school authorities a system that makes it easy for them to publish their learning materials, and for their students to use them. And to update them quickly and efficiently.

Many schools have met this demand by providing easy-to-use systems for teachers to develop and acquire rights to the documents they need for teaching, and to post them in a protected environment accessible only to their own students. These systems are often run jointly by the librarians and the information technology people at the school, and respond well to the demand. As a result, the quality of teaching improves.

Also creating a demand are the students, armed with their laptops and a lifetime of Internet use. They would rather read from the computer screen than from the printed page. They are looking for the latest research that has not yet arrived in print. They expect to be able to browse a wider range of ideas and facts than is contained in the school's library. These expectations come no longer just from a privileged minority but from the vast majority of students. Our entering freshman class at Boston University is 70% laptop owners; the other 30% use a desktop computer. That adds to 100%, just like the student population of Maine or Henrico County Virginia or the other communities that have turned to 1-to-1 computing as public policy.

When the people demand something in a free marketplace, the suppliers are eager to provide it. This principle of economics applies as well to the supply of learning materials.


Books are expensive to develop, print, ship, keep in stock, and update. And they are heavy and consume natural resources. Textbook publishing is therefore a tough business. And the people who run these businesses see the same facts that we do: a new generation that is more comfortable getting its information online, a burgeoning of connected laptops in homes and schools, and a growing unwillingness to shell out half a hundred for a history of Hungary. They are actively preparing for a very different future, and making major investments in online publishing. They foresee the day when the school (or the student himself, at the college level) will buy not a textbook but a subscription to the subject accessible online in a variety of forms. They are already realizing a substantial portion of their income from online publishing, and you can see this trend for yourself by visiting Pearson's MyMathLab http://www.mymathlab.com/ or Harcourt's Holt Online Learning at http://my.hrw.com/hrw/login_all.jsp

A publisher can make more profit selling an online subscription at $10 per student than from a $40 textbook. As more and more schools and students demand their materials digitally, the more will the publishers supply them in that form. The law of supply and demand will drive the change.

Also on the supply side are the purveyors of learning management systems, software that organizes and facilitates the libraries of educational content that one resided in books and paper journals and photocopies. The two biggest, Blackboard and WebCT, work closely with the textbook publishers to make sure the new online content works through their systems. They want to ensure a good supply of educational resources. More and more schools and colleges are licensing the systems, indicating that what they are supplying is meeting a real demand.


Shall we bemoan the death of the book? Will people stop reading as they spend more and more time in front of the computer screen? It's not that simple.

We are considering here the school textbook -- the wide and unwieldy tome used for presentation and reference in school subjects. Not the kind of object you can curl up with in a comfortable chair. The laws of supply and demand apply to this kind of book, and not to all books. The new technologies seem to be better at providing reference information and learning materials, and the marketplace is changing to reflect this.

Will I still take my copy of The Old Man and the Sea off on the boat with me every summer, and read the story from the printed page as I slouch in the stern sheets? You bet I will. The paper book is the best way to interact with this story, and I suspect it will be for my great-grandchildren as well. The novel and the newsmagazine are less apt to be converted to the online context. There's little demand for it.

When all the textbooks are gone and the reference libraries closed and the students all staring at their screens, will we become a nation of non-readers? Hardly. Most of what our students do with their computers today is read and write. Email and instant messenger are their two most popular technologies. It's the television and the video game, not the computer, that steal time from reading and writing. There's plenty of demand for reading and writing, but not necessarily on paper.

The laws of economics will dictate the speed and extent of this shift. Rather than lamenting a natural progression, we might be well to look for opportunities to capitalize on the capabilities of the new supply of online educational materials, and to create a demand for high-quality digital documents.

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