The release of the new Amazon Kindle Fire last week has prompted a new round of interest and excitement about the potential for students to lighten the load in their backpacks, so heavily weighted down with heavy textbooks. The Kindle Fire, cheaper than the iPad and an Android tablet to boot, is the latest new hope for digital course materials.
I wrote my review of the Kindle Fire's potential as an educational tablet last week, and I was deeply skeptical that, even with that $199 price tag, the Kindle Fire would win over the educational market. Since then, I have actually shipped the device back, feeling pretty dissatisfied about the Kindle Fire as a tablet or as an e-reader.
Despite my doubts about the device itself, the news cycle surrounding the Kindle Fire has provided an opportunity for me to get in touch with a number of textbook publishers, digital content services, and textbook rental providers. As such, I can't help but wonder -- Kindle Fire's success or no -- what the future of the college bookstore will look like.
It's hard to imagine that, say, 10 years from now, college students will spend hundreds of dollars per course to buy brand new, printed, hardcover textbooks from their schools' college bookstore. Will they rent the textbooks instead? That's the bet that companies like Chegg and BookRenter (and even, perhaps, Amazon) are making. Chegg, for its part, wants to build a company that rivals Amazon in being the brand that college students identify with, and the portal through which college students go to find all manner of goods and services -- not just book rentals, but course recommendations and tutoring. BookRenter, on the other hand, is helping college bookstores make a transition to other distribution models, in its case renting rather than just buying textbooks. BookRenter provides a technology platform so that college bookstores (it has about 500 partner stores) can tap into a jointly-run supply chain for textbook rentals.
And when textbooks go digital? What then?
There are a number of new apps, of course, that are aiming to serve a changing college textbook market -- Inkling, Kno, and CourseSmart for example. These offer digital versions of popular textbooks, and depending on the app maker, have catalogs of various sizes. But how do they integrate with the processes already on place on campuses? Do they work with the college bookstore? Do they work with the college library? Do they work with individual professors? That's something that Courseload aims to do, offering schools a way to aggregate and distribute digital content and offering students a way to highlight and share their content.
But there's an interesting twist with Courseload: schools that adopt its platform require students to pay, as part of their tuition fees, for their course materials. That means there's no opting out of buying textbooks. There's no looking for cheaper, used books. There's no sharing the cost burden with your roommates. There's no looking elsewhere for a better deal.
It seems clear that students are -- for now at least -- most interested in looking for a cheaper deal (and whether that's actually a "better deal" remains to be seen). It's not that students don't want the highlighting and sharing and lighter-load-in-the-backpack benefits of digital content. It's that they are balking at the high price of course materials, particularly on top of the high price of tuition.
We (technology journalists) spend a lot of time talking about the future of the book and by extension, the future of the bookstore. But what will the future of the college bookstore look like? After all, it's a different beast, one that's integrated with classes taught -- past, present and future -- and one that's integrated as well with the campus "brand." As we move towards more digital resources in the classroom, will the campus bookstore move too?