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Issue 12 May 2008   Tuesday, May 6, 2008

ISSN 1748-3603

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Interoperability Standards: Addressing Education Industry Challenges
Student Textbook Use and Pricing
by John Falchi

Compelling issues facing the education industry today include the rising cost of student textbooks; how to predict, assess and report student learning outcomes in order to address consumer and policymaker pressures; and the increased rate of attrition associated with online learning. The IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS GLC) believes that these challenges are shared internationally by providers of advanced learning, certifications and degrees. In order to address these, and other emerging issues, IMS GLC has recently formed an international Learning Technology Advisory Council (LTAC). The LTAC’s main charge is to provide greater guidance and prioritization to the development of IMS GLC learning technology interoperability standards and in support of the IMS GLC’s mission to recognize and promote Learning Impact

The IMS GLC is a leader in developing and promoting learning technology interoperability standards. Interoperability standards facilitate data integration and transmission among learning enterprise components, including ePortfolio, course management, and student information systems. To date, priorities for developing interoperability standards have been defined by a clear market need with ‘end-user’ input provided by a limited group of Higher Education (HE) stakeholders. With the formation of the LTAC, the IMS GLC is placing greater emphasis on HE and end-user priorities regarding interoperability. Since the LTAC was formed, just ten months ago, over seventy international learning technology leaders - representing more than sixty international HE institutions, professional organizations and government agencies - have participated in the LTAC summit and working groups. The outcomes of this group’s efforts have provided clear direction to IMS GLC initiatives, including the development of interoperability standards and adoption practices for:

  1. A dynamic, ‘born-digital’ alternative to current student textbooks and e-books (which are in general, simply digitized versions of paper textbooks).
  2. Interoperability standards and adoption practices aimed at generating information analytics that predict, assess and report student learning outcomes, including predictive modelling for early identification of ‘at-risk’ students.
  3. A methodology for introducing students to the e-learning environment, and in particular to address the issues of retention issues during this most critical period of the student life cycle.  The LTAC’s work will also develop use cases and end user requirements for information analytics systems to support this process, which can be used to support the information analytics initiatives discussed above.

This article provides a brief contextual summary of the first of the initiatives above.

Addressing Student Textbook Challenges – Cost and Use

In 2005, the US Government Accountability Office (USGAO, 2005) reported that textbook prices nearly tripled between 1986 and 2004, constituting an average annual price increase of twice the rate of inflation. The report identified frequent revisions and textbook supplements as key contributors to increasing textbook prices, and alluded to a disconnect between supply (publishers, wholesalers and retailers) and demand (faculty) related to supplemental materials. Acker (2008) argues that it is the structure of the industry that drives the high cost of student textbooks. This ‘annuity problem’, initially facing the publisher, but ultimately extended to the consumer (students), results in decreased revenue streams during a publication’s shelf-life. The problem is exacerbated first by successful used textbook programs (reducing the publisher’s new book sales); and second - although not as prevalent as in previous years - by students and faculty who ‘game’ the system by purchasing textbooks overseas at reduced prices (requiring the US market to subsidize revenue shortfalls).

According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and National Association of College Stores (NACS), printing and editorial costs account for an average of 32.2 cents in every dollar in textbook costs (NACS, 2007), suggesting that e-books could be sold for a substantially lower price than their paper counterparts. In fact, CourseSmart,, Ebrary, NetLibrary, and Safari already offer thousands of e-books at reduced prices, and via varying content licensing models. Despite the reduced pricing offered by e-books - often a 50% reduction in price versus printed - as Mark Nelson, Digital Content Strategist for NACS, points out: “faculty and student adoption of these digital alternatives remains at less than 1% of overall textbook purchases: while “as many as 18% of students say they are acquiring or accessing digital textbooks through four primary sources:  campus library, campus store, campus learning management systems, or direct from the publisher".

Identifying the barriers to e-book adoption is critical to developing viable alternatives. Nelson (2008) cites several barriers to wide-scale adoption of e-books:

  1. Lack of a robust e-book inventory.
  2. Cumbersome digital rights management (DRM) technologies that spoil the e-book purchasing experience.
  3. Failure of digital content options to meet student expectations (students want more ‘born-digital’ rather than simply ‘digitized’ books).
  4. The economics of current models do not make sense to students.
  5. Lack of a viable e-reader device.
  6. Lack of faculty willingness to adopt and promote the e-version of a textbook.  

Another key limitation of current textbooks and e-books is their lack of ‘customizability’: it is difficult for faculty to combine content from various sources and to align and integrate these resources with specific course, program, institution, or system-wide learning objectives.  Considering the current high price and lack of customizability associated with today’s textbook, perhaps Acker is correct in forecasting that, “Whether we acknowledge it now or not, the yellow brick road leads to a digital future” Acker (2008).  

In the US, emerging solutions to address the content customizability issue are offered by California State University (CSU Digital Marketplace) and OhioLink, a consortium of 86 Ohio college and university libraries and the State Library of Ohio. These initiatives provide faculty and researchers with digital learning materials (cost-based and open) enabling them to selectively acquire, share and redistribute their works. The CSU and Ohio models not only provide educators with greater access and ability to customize student learning materials, but also enable system-wide management and purchase of digital learning materials that can significantly lower pricing due to economies of scale. Toward similar ends, Europe’s i2010, establishing a European Digital Library, will combine multicultural and multilingual environments with technological advances and new business models to provide greater online access to Europe’s diverse cultural and scientific heritage (books, films, maps, photographs, music, etc.) for study, work and leisure.  Providing students and educators with greater choices and flexibility for customizing learning materials, as provided by digital resources, is being examined in Asia as well as throughout Europe and North America.  Park (2007), for example, studied the consortium models employed for e-books in university libraries in Korea and found a shift from printed format to shared collections via online access: “Organizing a cooperative purchasing consortium critically affects the buying power when negotiating pricing, terms and conditions”  (Park 2007:78).

In addition to the above, OhioLINK’s eBook Project is partnering with major publishers to develop an online alternative for the student textbook, placing emphasis on delivering student e-books at 50% of the cost of a traditional textbook, while simultaneously enhancing learning outcomes afforded by the alignment of digital content (open, for-profit) with clear learning objectives.  This e-book is delivered via a Web-based application provided by the publisher.  Steve Acker, Research Director for the OhioLINK Project, reports that the University of Dayton and Miami University have successfully piloted digital texts in introductory biology and psychology courses, respectively and argues that “faculty fully versed in how to integrate digital texts into the curriculum can demonstrably improve student acceptance of eTexts as well as their learning outcomes”.

Two LTAC initiatives aimed at creating the dynamic, ‘born-digital’ environment discussed above are underway.  The first is a pilot project to develop an e-book to serve students in meeting disciplinary-specific learning outcomes. This project will apply the IMS Common Cartridge interoperability standard as the base development and distribution framework. The IMS Common Cartridge is supported by many leading educational publishers, learning platform providers, open source/content initiatives, and assessment organizations. The aim of this initiative is to enable integration of course content from various sources: open, (faculty-inspired, publisher-provided) and learning tools (assessments, simulations, discussion forums) with specific learning objectives. This environment will be presented to students and faculty as an e-book and shared within a consortia setting. If successful and scalable, this born-digital alternative will begin to address the key issues facing textbooks today, cost and customizability, by offering a vehicle by which higher education institutions, systems and consortia can achieve economies of scale through group purchasing and management of learning assets, while providing only those learning materials directly relevant to learning objectives and course requirements.  
Applying the IMS Common Cartridge standard will enable instructors to assemble faculty- and course-specific e-books from various resources and publish them as reusable and modifiable packages. In addition, the Common Cartridge-enabled e-book could provide options for content delivery to accommodate learner style- and accessibility-specific needs.
Application of the Common Cartridge as a framework for the e-book will benefit both publishers and the open content community by substantially reducing the production, testing and distribution costs associated with having to deliver to multiple learning platform/proprietary content formats. In theory, the reduced development and distribution costs could be passed on to the consumer: students.
A second LTAC initiative intends to build upon the e-book framework and base Common Cartridge functionality to create a Dynamic Instructional Content Environment (DICE) environment. In addition to providing the base functionality offered by the Common Cartridge-enabled e-book discussed above, the DICE environment will allow educators to sequence content per desired learner behavior/instructional strategies and provide specific content objects based on the learner’s navigational path through the sequenced content and associated assessment outcomes. This functionality will enable a truly dynamic learning environment that will provide the integration of rich digital content with ancillary, digital textbook resources (e.g. assessments, simulations, learning tools) as well as the ability to gauge the learner’s interaction with these resources and initiate personalized remedial activities via the branching or reordering of content.
As student advocacy groups and legislators continue to pressure publishers to provide greater transparency and alternatives for current textbook pricing models, and institutions continue to explore and implement used textbook and textbook loan programs to address student textbook pricing issues, the IMS GLC will work with stakeholders to continue to develop a market-based solution that leverages technical interoperability standards as a key component to the textbook cost and use solution.  This solution is aimed at enabling Selective Learning and Instruction Content Exchange (SLICE) within a Dynamic Instructional Content Environment (DICE).   Or, the ability of educators to ‘SLICE and DICE’ content to meet discipline-, course-, institution-, or system-specific learning objectives while simultaneously enhancing learning outcomes and reducing the price of student learning materials.  
John Falchi
Chief Program Strategist
IMS Global Learning Consortium
Acker S (2007) Textbooks: A Value Proposition [Online].  Available from [Accessed 14/11/07]
California State Digital Marketplace [Online):  Available from [Accessed 03/03/08]
Common Cartridge Working Group [Online]:  Available from [Accessed 18/10/07]
Dynamic Instructional Content Environment [Online]:   Available from  [Accessed 23/03/08]
i2010: Digital Libraries Initiative [Online].  Available from  [Accessed 28/03/08]
IMS Global Learning Consortium [Online]:  Available from [Accessed 08/03/08]
IMS Global Learning Consortium Standards [Online]:  Available from [Accessed 05/04/08]
IMS Global Learning Consortium Learning Impact 2007 Report[ Online]:  Available from [Accessed 05/11/08]
Learning Technology Advisory Council [Online];  Available from [Accessed 09/03/08]
National Association of College Stores (2007; Online):  Where the Textbook Dollar Goes.  Available from$.pdf [Accessed 08/03/08]
National Association of College Stores (2007) Campus Marketplace, More Textbook Bills Pop Up in Seven States (Online) Available from [Accessed 23/11/07]
Nelson M (2008) E-Books in Higher Education: Nearing the End of the Era of Hype? [Online]  Available from [Accessed 01/03/08]
OhioLINK [Online]: Available from [Accessed 13/02/08]
Park (2007)  A study of consortium models for e-books in university libraries in Korea [Online].  Available from [Accessed 04/04/08]
Student Public Interest Research Groups (2008) Make Textbooks Affordable [Online] Available from [Accessed 03/04/08]
The Ohio eBook Project:
Europe’s Information Society i2010 - A European Information Society for growth and employment
United States Government Accountability Office (2005) COLLEGE TEXTBOOKS, Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases [Online].  Available from [Accessed 15/12/07]
Helpful Links
National Association of College Stores FAQ Textbooks [Online]:  Available from [Accessed 11/10/07]
Gordon D (2005)  High Cost of Textbooks Sparks Interest In Digital Alternatives [Online]  Available from [Accessed 28/09/07]
Alex Kingsbury A and Galloway L (2006)  Textbooks Enter the Digital Era High-Tech Options can save money and boost learning [Online].  Available from  [Accessed 13/09/07]

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