Thursday, November 20, 2014

What David Wiley Gets Wrong About Textbook Publishers and How it Can Hurt OER's Growth

I just tweeted this observation in response to remarks David Wiley made in a quick interview with Steve Kolowich for the Chronicle of Higher Education's Wired Campus Blog (a good read).
Let me explain. But first . .

some caveats . . 

a reminder:
I work, happily and proudly, for the Bedford/St. Martin's imprint of Macmillan Education, a college textbook publisher. From my point of view, and I would say many of my colleagues, Open Educational Resources are a good thing; OER is no more the enemy of Macmillan Education than Pearson is. They are competitors, part of a changing industry. A professor who assigns an OER resource instead of ours is no different, from my point of view, than a professor assigning a Norton textbook instead of ours.

an acknowledgment:
OER content has improved. Early OER was disorganized, hard to find, not well supported, often poorly edited. I know because I wrote some of it and read a lot of it. It was more a collection of class handouts and assignments scattered hither and yon in varied OER projects or personal collections. But now the content and structures around OER are getting better, with crucial support coming from state legislative initiatives, foundations, and projects like David Wiley's Lumen Learning.

a belief:
I've contributed a bit to OER projects, advising on projects like Joe Moxley's Writing Commons, recommending Mike Palmquist's Writing Studio, reviewing free online tools like bibliography builders, doing peer review for an open access journal,  and regularly pointing faculty to free content I would find #worthassingning were I teaching. I think OER is a good thing, a valuable movement. It has helped motivate commercial textbook publishers to do more with e-commerce and e-books that help bring down costs. Competition does that.

How David Wiley Sees Textbook Companies Abilities to Reach Faculty -- Not Nicely, Not Accurately.

Steve Kolowich's discussion with David Wiley focused on the difficulty of making faculty aware of OER resources, knowing how to find them, choose them, and assign them. Wiley has this take on publishers' advantages:
Traditional textbook companies “have a budget to send out dead trees—big marketing budgets,” he said. “That’s what you’re really competing with: (a) with that marketing budget and (b) with a very, very lean-back experience for the faculty member where content just magically appears, for them, on their desk, and they say, ‘Oh, this table of contents looks good,’ or ‘I like the cover art on that one.’ It’s not generally a very proactive experience for many of them.” 
“I don’t think you can market OER the same way you can market textbooks traditionally,” he said. “The way textbooks get marketed is there are these huge collections of databases of which faculty members are teaching which courses at which institutions and how many sections and how many students are estimated to be in each section—tracking all of that data and figuring out which of those are worth mailing dead trees to, and which can we only do in email, and—just huge amounts of money. And it’s the kind of money you can only spend when you charge $250 for a textbook.”
I love the dead trees line. Textbooks, of course, are not dead trees, though some trees, or recycled products from earlier dead trees, do die in their making. Textbooks are pedagogical tools, whether printed or online.

Publishers do send exam copies. And publishers do try to keep track (Though not as efficiently as Wiley’s evocation might suggest.) of which professors teach which courses, how many students are enrolled those courses, which prior books, if any were used in those courses, and other things it really helps to know.

But publishers also try to be smart about which books to send; postage is a cost; exam copy books finding their way to the used book market is a cost; and professors peeved by getting too many unwanted and unasked for books is a cost.

But here’s the thing, sending books in the mail works when and if the book is likely to be wanted by the professor. Here’s the other thing, the real important thing that David Wiley gets wrong -- by omission: sending books matters, and data helps, but the strength college textbook publishers have is not in databases and a book sampling budget, but in people, two groups especially: the sales force who knock on faculty doors, and the editors who develop books with faculty input and by faculty authors.

People Matter More Than Data and Mailing Books

Look, good information matters a lot, and it can be recorded, stored, and turned into data. But to get good information, you need good people. A good publisher sales representative will learn which faculty teach which courses and how they like to teach the course. Good sales representatives filter pedagogical need, helping faculty find the book or digital media that will most likely be useful. A good sales rep is also an advocate, conveying to editors and publishers faculty feedback, requests, and critiques.

So if a professor gets a book on her desk and likes the table of contents and decides to order the book, very often it's because the process to that point -- the meeting with reps, looking at other books, talking to editors -- was very proactive. It's a myth to think that sending books and targeting faculty based on what's in a data base makes the difference. Faculty are more sophisticated than Wiley implies. The decision on which book to use, even if not made after consulting a sales rep or editor from a publishing company, is made on more than what's in the table of contents or what's on the cover.

Choosing what content to use in a course is hard when one is choosing something new. The decision to choose is proactive. The advantage publishers have, in their sales force and with their editors who work with customers, is that they can help faculty make those decisions by listening, filtering, and recommending. And, then, if the recommendation is chosen, supporting the choice with instructor teaching guides, and if a department uses the book or media for enough sections, campus teaching workshops, often author lead, that qualify, very often, as faculty professional development.

People Ain't Perfect, But Are, in Aggregate, Effective

Not all reps are good, not all editors responsive, not all faculty even interested in talking to a rep or editor. But the key thing textbook publishers have that OER projects do not have are people whose careers center around talking to faculty about teaching. And the best reps and editors, the really good ones, the ones faculty tend to enjoy spending time with, are those who care as deeply about teaching and learning as faculty do.

Textbook companies hire a lot of people who really do see their work as a mission to better teaching and learning. It may not seem that way if you've not met those folks, but they are essential to the sales a textbook company earns.

Not Seeing the Forest of People for the Dead Trees

So my thinking is that OER won't really take off if it learns that how professors choose books is not simply a marketing advantage marked by databases and mass mailings.

Until the OER movement has more people who can do the kind of work of helping faculty match their teaching needs to OER resources, and helping faculty adopt and use the resources well, it will be harder for OER to get the attention it may -- where the stuff is good -- deserve.

I am sure that there are good OER initiatives emerging that harness the enthusiasm of OER advocates, people who will promote and recommend OER. That's to be encouraged because without it, OER growth will take longer.

The best publicity for publishers is smart reps and editors talking to professors about creating, reviewing, and using their stuff.

It's about lots of people talking to lots of people lots of times.


Jim Greenberg said...

The dead trees argument should be reconsidered if you ask me. Trees are renewable while the energy to transmit and store electronics or photons is not.

Nick Carbone said...

That's true, Jim, and it reminds that Macmillan has a green initiative, where they seek to buy recycled paper or paper from operations that replant trees, and other steps to reduce the environmental impacts of print and shipping.