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
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
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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