Mike Silagadze isn’t shy about his desire to take market share from the largest college textbook publishers through his classroom software company Top Hat. He believes his company’s brand of digital textbooks beats anything Pearson, McGraw-Hill and their ilk can provide.
Founded in 2009, Top Hat claims that 2.7 million students access its digital course materials, including those at 750 of the top 1,000 higher education institutions in North America.
Silagadze believes younger faculty members and future generations of college students will help drive institutions to adopt digital materials instead of print.
Top Hat has challenged tangible goods for a long time now. Its first offering was a digital version of clickers to measure student responses in the classroom. In 2017, the company launched a marketplace for e-textbooks, working with authors and offering openly licensed content from the likes of OpenStax as well.
Last year, the company ceased sales of individual assessment tools to instead offer a bundle of its products. Students pay $48 for one year of Top Hat’s products. Interactive textbooks on Top Hat cost an average of $35.
But more technology doesn’t always mean better results. Within K-12 learning environments, the digital divide means that students in low-income and rural households have less access to reliable internet and fewer connected deviceson which to complete the online portions of their homework. And while Pearson’s initiative applies only to textbooks in higher ed, the shift to digital has implications at the collegiate level as well.
Just as traditional software has a thriving open source community, textbooks have Open Educational Resources, complete textbooks that typically come free of charge digitally, or for a small fee—enough to cover the printing—in hard copy. And while it’s not an entirely new concept, OER has gained momentum in recent years, particularly as support has picked up at an institutional level, rather than on a course by course basis. According to a 2018 Babson College survey, faculty awareness of OER jumped from 34 percent to 46 percent since 2015.
One of OER’s leading proponents is OpenStax, a nonprofit based out of Rice University that offers a few dozen free textbooks, covering everything from AP Biology to Principles of Accounting. In the 2019–2020 academic year, 2.7 million students across 6,600 institutions used an OpenStax product instead of a for-profit equivalent.
The knock against OER is that, well, you get what you pay for. “One faculty member told me only half-jokingly, that OER is like a puppy that’s free. You get the free puppy, but then you have to do all the work,” says Cengage’s Hansen, who argues that traditional publishers provide critical supporting materials, like assessment questions, that OER often lacks, and can push more regular updates.
By virtue of being free, OER materials also heavily skew toward digital, with hardcover as a secondary option. (Or you can download the PDF and print it out yourself.) The same caveats about efficacy apply. But at least OER doesn’t lock you into one digital platform, the way the major publishers do. OpenStax alone counts around 50 ecosystem partners to provide homework and testing support.
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Or you could always split the difference.
That’s the territory Cengage wants to stake out. Late last summer, the educational publishing behemoth—it announced a planned merger with McGraw Hill in May; the combined company would surpass all but Pearson in market capitalization—rolled out Cengage Unlimited, a “Netflix for Textbooks” model that rolls all textbook rentals and digital platform access into a single rate: $120 for a semester, $180 for a full year, or $240 for two years. Almost a year in, the US-only program has a million subscribers.