Textbook publisher Pearson is going digital. Here’s why that’s a bad move.

Textbook publisher Pearson
Pearson first announced its "digital first" strategy in July. Source: Shutterstock

In July, textbook publisher Pearson announced its “digital first” strategy for publishing new materials. As a result, all 1,500 US textbooks will transition to digital, and it’s unclear how often print materials will be published and revised.

In some ways, this is a sensible move. Textbook authors can update materials as and when required, and the process for doing so will become much simpler and less costly. Fair enough.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the motivation for the transition seems somewhat sinister. In 2016, Pearson decided to cut an astounding ten percent of its staff by 2019 due to a loss of £2.6 billion.

What caused the reduction in revenue? Students buying second-hand textbooks, apparently.

Crunching the numbers

The BBC reported that Pearson “has been struggling as students increasingly opt to rent second-hand print textbooks to save money.”

To add insult to injury,  more than US$10 billion is spent each year at American university bookstores, an unfathomable amount that earns the average bookstore a profit of 21 percent.

“We want students to have the best and most up-to-date content for the best price,” Pearson CEO John Fallon told Inside Higher Ed.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, literary editor Sam Leith calls Fallon’s bluff:

“It’s pretty easy to see why electronic-only publishing makes sense for the textbook publisher Pearson. It benefits from what’s sometimes called near-zero marginal cost; or, in less fancy terms, it can bang out as many copies of its textbooks as it likes at the push of a button and doesn’t have to pay for paper, printing, warehousing or distribution. Even if it halves the price – which I dare say it won’t – Pearson’s profits per copy will soar.”

Consider Pearson’s forthcoming three-point pricing model according to Fallon. New e-books will cost US$40 on average. Print rentals will be $60. Fully digital platforms complete with homework assignments and assessments, like Pearson’s MyLab and Mastering, will cost US$65 to US$80.

Seems reasonable, right? Wrong. Students can resell print textbooks and get some of their money back, but digital ebooks and online courseware can’t be resold. That money is gone forever.

Even subscription services that give students “full” access to their textbooks are misleading. Consider the Cengage Unlimited service, which charges US$179.99 per year for access to textbooks and online course materials. Here’s the catch: access expires at the end of the year. Students can pay an extra US$60 for a two-year subscription.

Financials aside, transitioning to digital has more serious implications for learning. Let’s take a look.

Students prefer print

According to online textbook marketplace Lead Winds, 66 percent of students don’t buy textbooks because they cost too much. Just 25 percent of students buy brand new textbooks. That’s obviously bad news for publishers like Pearson.

Here are some fast facts on student reading preferences, according to Lead Winds:

  • 75 percent of students “said that they would prefer a print textbook over a digital textbook if cost was not a factor.” 
  • 60 percent of students reported they’d purchase an affordable print version, even if the same digital textbook was free.
  • Just 25 percent of students buy e-books.

Despite student preference for print, it’s only a matter of time before textbooks on the second-hand market become obsolete and outdated. 

That’s what the textbook publisher Pearson is quite literally banking on. 

And, considering that Pearson is one of just five publishers that controls 80 percent of the textbook market, other publishers are sure to follow suit.

Information retention suffers

“We learn by engaging and sharing with others, and a digital environment enables you to do that in a much more effective way,” Fallon told the BBC.

Judging by this statement, it’s clear that Fallon is completely out of touch with how the human brain actually learns and retains information.

Scientific American reported that tactile interaction is an integral part of the reading experience, particularly when it comes to retention:

“When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation—strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way.”

Textbook publisher Pearson

Contrary to what the textbook publisher Pearson might say, students actually prefer print. Source: Shutterstock

In a study conducted by the University of Stavanger, high school students were asked to read two passages on which they were tested for reading comprehension. Half of the students who read PDF versions of those texts on a computer scored worse than those who read on paper.

Another review, detailed in an article on Inside Higher Ed, found that “readers may not comprehend complex or lengthy material as well when they view it digitally as when they read it on paper.”

Besides, we’re already spending too much time staring at screens. Consider the modern university student, who spends as much as ten hours per day on their phone, according to a study by Baylor University. That doesn’t include time spent writing essays on a computer or reading online textbooks.

Forbes reported in January that the average tech user spends up to 12 hours per day staring at television and computer screens. Studies show that excessive amounts of screen time actually shrinks our brains.

Universities are also losing out

Students aren’t the only ones being shortchanged by Pearson’s online scheme. 

In my home state of South Carolina, Trident Technical College, one of more than 700 US colleges participating in Pearson’s Inclusive Access programme, is being sued for misleading students about the cost of course materials.

According to Trident’s contract with Pearson, the college must meet a quota of 12,291 Inclusive Access enrolments. If they fall short, Pearson can charge full price for all materials.

Perhaps that’s why Trident Tech told students their Inclusive Access materials were free, even though the charge was quietly added to their tuition costs. If students chose to opt out, they’d lose access to the materials and even their assignments, which violates a Department of Education requirement.

Trident Tech also falsely claimed their price for the programme was the lowest, preventing students from searching for cheaper options at third-party bookstores.

The bottom line

On paper (pun intended), the switch to digital sounds great. Digital publications are easy to update with the most current and relevant information. The new model may seem more cost-effective at first glance, but it comes with an even higher cost – a literal cheapening of the learning experience.

The evidence is clear: most students prefer print, and digital reading reduces retention. Even so, reports paint the Pearson transition as a positive for students, when it’s clearly a profit-boosting scheme masquerading as an affordable, accessible option. Digital reading certainly isn’t going anywhere, but protecting consumer choice is crucial. 

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