Blackboard's Bid to Galvanize E-Texts

July 15, 2010

ORLANDO — In a series of moves that could give a boost to an e-textbook industry that has been treading water for years, Blackboard announced Wednesday that it is partnering with a major publisher and two major e-textbook vendors to make it easy for professors and students to assign and access e-textbooks and other digital materials directly through its popular learning-management system.

The company, which controlled about 60 percent of the learning-management market as of last year, said it is partnering with McGraw-Hill, a top academic publisher, as well as Follett Higher Education Group and Barnes & Noble, two major distributors that operate a combined 1,500 college bookstores in the United States and Canada.

The McGraw-Hill partnership will allow instructors to search the McGraw-Hill catalog for relevant course materials, then assign them to their students, without ever leaving Blackboard. Students can then purchase and access the assigned materials, also through the Blackboard portal, via the Follett and Barnes & Noble online bookstores.

Blackboard timed the announcement to coincide with its annual user conference here, where delegations from its many clients have gathered to geek out about e-learning and present various projects being done with Blackboard's popular e-learning tool kit.

The company would not comment on whether it is negotiating similar deals with publishers other than McGraw-Hill. But the other big-time e-textbook providers have been making moves of their own. Earlier this week, CourseSmart, a consortium of five major publishers (including McGraw-Hill), unveiled its new “Faculty Instant Access” program, which lets instructors access e-textbooks and other online content directly through any learning-management system (including Blackboard). CourseSmart will be rolling out the program to a handful of "selected universities" in coming weeks.

Michael Chasen, the president of Blackboard, demonstrated his company's new integration with McGraw-Hill, Follett, and Barnes & Noble during a keynote address on Wednesday at the user conference. Chasen narrated as he logged into a dummy course page in astronomy; then, without navigating out of the page, he searched McGraw-Hill's titles for an astronomy e-textbook using a few keywords. Chasen selected one, along with some supplemental e-learning objects, causing them to appear in the list of materials for the course. He then simulated the ease with which a student would log in to the course page, see the title in the list, and purchase it with a few quick clicks. "We’ve heard from our clients and their faculty that they want easier access to all that great online content that’s currently available on the Web through professional publishers,” Chasen said.

The name of the game is convenience, Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard Learn, emphasized later in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. If a publisher’s content is easy to assign electronically through the learning management system, that publisher could have a leg up when professors are deciding which publisher to choose. “There’s recognition… that Blackboard does represent a significant opportunity to reach their end users,” said Henderson. “We’re a great amplifier for their message.”

But can Blackboard, through these arrangements — and other learning-management providers such as Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Sakai, through CourseSmart’s Faculty Instant Access program — help publishers move more e-textbooks? Despite substantial buzz, e-textbooks have so far failed to catch on in academe, capturing 3.5 percent of the total textbook market, according to last year’s Campus Computing Survey. Recent polling by the Student Monitor reveals that student awareness of e-textbooks this spring was down from the previous spring, to 50 percent from 59.

The convenience of learning-management system integration could give the digital textbooks a bump, says Eric Weil, managing director of the Student Monitor. “It certainly can’t hurt, and I think it will have a positive impact,” Weil says, adding that along with the buzz about e-readers galvanized by Apple’s iPad, this fall could be a breakout semester for e-textbooks.

But Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, cautions against ascribing too much credence to top-down efforts to stoke wider acceptance of e-textbooks. “The issue is not one of delivery, but about making a compelling value proposition,” Green says. In other words: As long as students still think the benefits of using a bound textbook outweigh the convenience of being able to buy an e-textbook through their college’s learning-management system, they will continue purchasing the old-fashioned kind.

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