Indiana University’s E-text Program

The Indiana University e-text program has gotten a lot of attention recently. The program, implemented by CIO, Brad Wheeler uses the institutional experience from volume software buying to change the pricing terms for e-texts in a sustainable win-win way for students, faculty and publishers.  Of course, that’s what the current spin is. Basically, telling a publisher that students will be compelled to buy a digital product (actually only rent a text as long as they are at IU) and perhaps a printed copy at a reduced price , is something accountants at Pearson, McGraw Hill, Prentice Hall and others must be overjoyed about. The more the program catches on, the better – for commercial publishers.

Wheeler might be CIO of the Year, but in a few years students will be paying a higher price.  IU’s program is a subscription system that publishers adore – fixed revenue at fixed intervals. Further, the student never owns anything in the end.  How is this beneficial? True, students will get access to materials at a reduced rate helping the learning process, but in many ways this could be accomplished in the current used book market, which Wheeler has basically eliminated. Publishers’ revenues were severely impacted by used books.

The bottom line is that publishers’ bottom lines will be enhanced. I’m not a future teller but if subscription-based products are any indication, textbook prices will go up annually, probably at a rate higher than inflation. Another bargain for students.

The Wheeler model might be all the rage but in some ways it’s outrageous. Students pay and don’t get anything permanently. If students want to port their text around, they might even have to purchase a digital reader, which should be added to the price.  I’m sure a secondary market will open up – students who wish to keep their access after leaving IU will only have to pay a rental fee, perhaps forever.

Wheeler has strengthened the commercial publishers’ hold on the textbook market. Sometimes you can take models from one industry and apply them to others. I’m just not convinced that bulk software buying and bulk textbook buying are similar. Bits of words don’t make bytes, and as any good CIO would tell you, once you’ve invested in a computing platform, the price to change is extremely high, if you are able to change at all.

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