Cengage’s new e-textbook subscription service seems reasonable, but the question lingers: Who needs textbooks anymore?

As reported by Inside Higher Ed (IHE) on December 5, 2018, Cengage has just introduced a Netflix-like subscription service giving students access to e-textbooks (in Cengage’s digital portfolio) for one set price, regardless of how many materials they use.

According to IHE, the new service, called Cengage Unlimited, “will give students access to more than 20,000 Cengage products across 70 disciplines and 675 course areas for $119.99 a semester. For 12 months’ access the price is $179.99, and for two years the price is $239.99. For students taking three or four courses a semester with assigned course materials from Cengage, the subscription could offer hundreds of dollars of savings a year, versus buying or renting the products individually.” [Read the full article here.]

As stated on Cengage’s site, this is “the first-of-its-kind digital subscription that gives students total and on-demand access  to all the digital learning platforms, ebooks, online homework and study tools Cengage has to offer – in one place.”

For added context, over 2,000 institutions in the United States reportedly assign Cengage materials in more than 10 courses; some 1,400 institutions assign Cengage materials in more than 20 courses; and some 600 institutions assign Cengage materials in more than 50 courses.

Given these numbers and given the steep price of educational materials, a Netflix-like subscription for course materials sounds logical. But, as Nate Hoffelder points out in The Digital Reader, it really comes down to how many textbooks students need a year.

Speaking of ‘use,’ I’m using this opportunity to put the spotlight (back) on the utility of digital textbooks in an age of interactive learning and massive amounts of (quality, reliable) educational information available freely on any given subject all over the Internet. Questions arise (in my mind, at least):

  • Why pay for static content found in textbooks (even in digital format) that isn’t updated as frequently as online sources? Today’s learning is about embracing fluidity of information — keeping up with it rather than trailing behind it.
  • Why pay for content that students will never be asked to read? What percentage of those bulky textbooks is actually assigned for reading and is on a professor’s radar?
  • Why should students pay for educational materials on a rolling basis and not the institutions they attend? Haven’t we seen trends around the world pointing to e-textbooks being made available for free to college students (e.g., Western Sydney University’s free textbook program).
  • Haven’t we also seen a shift in how educators approach learning as they move toward embracing open sources like Wikipedia, youtube and various e-learning platforms, encouraging collaborative learning and multi-faceted research?
  • Lastly, business moves like this seem to ignore the Open Textbook Revolution that is showing no signs of stopping. Even major publishers are embracing it (see Big Publishing Wants to Co-Opt the Open Textbook Revolution).

Many companies stand to lose a great deal if they don’t find ways to  reinvent the accessibility of textbooks in the digital age. But the hard-to-swallow fact remains that students and educators alike are embracing new ways of teaching and learning that go well beyond the limitations of textbooks (in any format). This has been happening for some time now. The point here isn’t to compare print and digital (as we usually do with other types of ebooks). The point is to draw attention to the limitations of an idea that knowledge can still be packaged and served in a box.

In the case of textbooks, the real ‘battle’ isn’t between print and digital. It also isn’t between ‘access’ and ‘ownership.’ It’s between ‘free’ and ‘not free’ and it’s between ‘fluid’ and ‘static.’ In both cases, and with all due respect to the companies trying to reinvent the textbook wheel (like Cengage), the former is winning.

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