Can the “Netflix for Textbooks” Model Really Improve Access?


Textbooks play a central role in discussions about accessibility to higher education, and publishers have long been seen as the bad guys, generating high profits as textbook prices to augment.

These days, some publishers are trying out a new sales model that they believe will save students money: textbook subscription services. The latest player to jump in is Pearson, who released Pearson Plus over the summer as a “pay-as-you-go” alternative to traditional textbooks.

Pearson Plus subscribers pay $ 9.99 per month for access to a digital textbook or $ 14.99 per month to access all of the more than 1,500 titles on the company’s platform, with each plan requiring a minimum of four months. Users also get access to audiobook versions of their texts, available for around 60% titles, as well as study guides and a discount on a separate tutoring service for premium subscribers.

This price is slightly lower than a similar model offered by Cengage, which charges $ 69.99 per semester for what it calls Cengage Unlimited, its comprehensive e-library, and an additional $ 50 for access to a system. associated homework that teachers often assign with the textbook. A smaller publisher with a subscription model, Perlego, charges users $ 18 per month for the use of its textbook catalog at a discounted rate for those who purchase a one-year subscription in advance.

The model has been called “Netflix for textbooks”, Comparing it to the popular subscription streaming service which has long charged a fixed monthly fee for all of its content. And textbook editors who try this approach argue that it could save students money, provided they are assigned more than one editor title in a given semester. But the question of the value of textbook subscriptions can be more complicated than the price listed on the checkout page.

Experts say the biggest change in Pearson’s decision may have been the continued squeeze in the high school textbook market, where students get some of their money back when they sell second-hand books, but publishers do not get a resale discount. After all, students can’t resell an e-book that goes missing after the semester ends. And the concern of industry watchers is that in the long run, publishers could raise their prices even more if alternatives to second-hand textbooks ever disappear completely from the landscape.

Change over time

Cengage Unlimited was launched three years ago as a more affordable textbook option for students, says Erin Joyner, senior vice president of US higher education product at Cengage. Since then, the platform has grown to include soft skills guides on topics such as improving study skills or preparing for the job market.

The move, she argues, attempted to answer a customer’s call for cheaper options. “It goes without saying,” she adds, “we have access to all this material, why are we giving it access piece by piece? How can this really impact affordability?

Digital textbooks generate far more data than paper textbooks ever could. With this, publishers see an opportunity for new revenue lines.

Kristie Gan, senior vice president of direct-to-consumer sales at Pearson, says the Pearson Plus model was designed to make textbooks more affordable while remaining competitive with other means of buying textbooks. Pearson Plus can always provide students with the latest versions of their books and offers users something more than a single platform, she says.

“We want to make sure that we build a relationship with the student so that we can tailor the learning experience to the needs of the student,” says Gan. “We want to help them study better. I think we are going to create better study tools to help students on their learning journey. We need data to be able to do this.

Meanwhile, when students resell their books, Gan says, Pearson no longer plays a role in the quality of that experience.

Out of the place (of the market)

Subscription services are of concern to Nicole Allen, director of open education at Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. She notes that major publishers have been offering digital textbooks for over 10 years, but have only recently introduced subscription rates.

“It basically allows them to take the aftermarket out of the equation,” she says. “If you look at the prices, the prices for used books and for renting are in many cases lower than those for renting a book. [book]. This is why the full access model is so important: it takes that choice away from students.

It’s easy to see why students would be drawn to the monthly textbook subscription model, says C. Edward Watson, associate vice president of curriculum and instructional innovation at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The subscription approach reduces the sticker shock of paying for the books all at once, and he can imagine students encouraging their teachers to choose Pearson books if that could save them money. But he says, don’t call it “Netflix for textbooks.”

“The mistake is that Netflix is ​​a place of entertainment,” says Watson. “Pearson claims to have 1,500 textbooks, but I don’t think students will just go surfing looking for textbook entertainment. “

Like Allen, he notes that the shift to digital textbooks means there is no physical copy for students to sell or share with friends.

“This whole notion of reselling sort of goes away, which is probably part of the intent,” Watson says.

While publishers may be excited about the new information they can acquire as their digital textbook platforms grow, Allen says there’s not enough conversation about the kind of information publishers should be allowed to collect.

“It’s a game-changer when you just sell content rather than when you sell content that can give you insight into the habits and life of campus and of each student,” says Allen. “When we think of algorithms that make decisions for institutions about who is cheating on a test or who is plagiarized, it impacts people’s lives. “

Katelynn Gilbert, a psychology and English student at the University of North Carolina, estimates that she spent $ 350 on textbooks this year. His first year totaled over $ 500.

She thinks a lot about textbook prices as president of her school chapter of the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group. As part of her campaign for accessibility of textbooks, she is pushing teachers to adopt free or low-cost educational resources rather than more expensive titles from traditional publishers.

“What we really found is the problem is the access codesshe said, referring to the growing practice of faculty assigning editor homework systems that require each student to purchase a code to complete the core work of a course. No student should have to pay for it. to do one’s homework.

As for the additional bells and whistles that publishers have added to their textbook platforms, Gilbert says these aren’t usually factored into student buying decisions.

“Every student I spoke to [cares] on cost, ”says Gilbert. “I’ve never heard of anyone trying to compare specs. While some features might sound cool, in the end we are on a budget to get what we need. “


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