Should higher ed even try to keep up with Amazon?
The question is actually much broader and potentially more profound.
Should higher ed run at consumer business speeds?
Are we in a fundamentally different service business as the Amazon's of the world?
Are attempts to draw lessons from an Amazon (or a Google or shoot me now a Facebook) inherently flawed, misleading, and potentially damaging?
Are the contexts, mission, and businesses just so radically different between Amazon and higher ed that any attempt to draw lessons from the former will be unproductive at best?
Amazon's new Kindle MatchBook program throws these questions into sharp relief. What MatchBook attempts to do (once all the publishers are on board) is to allow print book owners the option of buying an inexpensive e-book version of the same title. Price points for the Kindle versions of print books that you own will go from $0.99 to $2.99. Books that you purchased from Amazon going back to 1995 will be available in the MatchBook program.
This is very smart on Amazon's part. Enabling consumers to purchase a digital/print bundle will encourage both more print and digital sales, and may drive more book sales period.
I like to read the same books as my wife, but she is a print readers and I'm a Kindle reader. If I can get both print and digital for a couple more bucks I'm more likely to purchase a book that we both want to read, a book that I may not have purchased in the past.
MatchBook will also bring Amazon (and publishers and authors) new revenues as readers purchase digital books to build their Kindle collections. An e-book is great for searching and for mobility (always a click away). There are many books that I have purchased from Amazon in the past that I'd like to have available on my iPhone (downloaded from the cloud) when I need to find a particular reference. MatchBook will not cannibalize existing book sales, but rather spur purchases of new books and books in multiple formats.
What is disturbing from a higher ed perspective is that we often seem to be going in the opposite way of Amazon's focus on technology enabled consumer choice.
How many colleges and universities remove students access to course materials in learning management systems once they graduate?
How often do we make it impossible for students to watch videos (delivered online) that we own in our library collections once the class that the video has been assigned is over?
How difficult is it for students to access library or curricular materials on multiple devices or off campus?
How hard is it for students to review class materials and assignments before deciding if the enrolling in the course makes sense?
The move from physical to digital educational assets (articles, books, etc.) has certainly complicated the student access landscape. We rent rather than own these materials and databases, and must abide by the vendors rules. We may own a ton of video materials that our students may like to utilize outside of class assignments, but fear of getting sued has prohibited us from making these digital materials freely available to all of our students at anytime across all of their devices.
The interesting thing about Amazon's new MatchBook program is that it is a win / win. A win for the consumers (more format choice and lower total cost for those of us that want print and digital), and a win for Amazon (revenues).
Can we think of innovations that are enabled by technology that both increase student value and offer a sustainable revenue model for higher ed? Innovations to serve our existing students that not only increase their options around learning but also result in new savings or new revenues?
Should we accept that we will never be able to change as quickly as an Amazon, never be able to offer the sort of flexibility and consumer choice that we see emerging in businesses that were born digital?
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