Publishers See Online Mega-Courses as Opportunity to Sell Textbooks

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Colleges aren't the only institutions interested in massive open online courses, or MOOC's. Some publishers think the courses' reading lists represent "a promising market."
September 17, 2012

Colleges aren't the only enterprises interested in the possibilities of free, online courses. Publishers have begun to investigate whether so-called MOOC's, or massive open online courses, can help them reach new readers and sell more books.

For the moment, providers of the classes encourage professors not to require students to buy texts, in order to keep access as open as possible. So publishers can't count on MOOC's to generate a course-adoption sales.

But online courses do have recommended-reading lists, and enrollments in the tens of thousands. If even a small percentage of those online students buy books, the sales could add up to a nice boost for a textbook.

"We are actively tracking the development of MOOC's and believe they do represent a promising market for university-press titles," said Ellen W. Faran, director of the MIT Press.

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What You Need to Know About MOOC's

Her press has already enjoyed what appears to be one MOOC-related sales bounce. A course taught in spring 2011 by Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the online provider Coursera, featured an MIT Press book as recommended reading: Probabilistic Graphical Models: Principles and Techniques, written by Ms. Koller and Nir Friedman. The course had an enrollment of 44,000, Ms. Faran recalled. "We saw a dramatic spike in the sales of this upper-level text last spring," she said.

From her perspective, online courses have another advantage: They attract many international students, a group that university presses are trying harder to reach.

Some publishers already operate with business models well-suited to new experiments in free online education. Flat World Knowledge Inc., for instance, bills itself as "the world's largest publisher of free and open college textbooks."

Jeff Shelstad, the company's founder and chief executive, says he hopes that some MOOC providers will look to the publisher as a source of course reading. That has already happened with an edX course scheduled to start in October, "Introduction to Solid State Chemistry." Taught by Michael J. Cima, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the course features a Flat World textbook as recommended reading.

The publisher gives away online access to all of its 75 or so titles, counting on some students to add a paid option, such as a printed copy, a downloadable version, or flashcards and other supplements. Mr. Shelstad said. Flat World will be in some 7,500 traditional classrooms this academic year, he said; a typical class size is about 65 students. "So if the MOOC is bringing in 13,000, that's a big deal for us."

In traditional classroom courses, "generally we convert 40 percent of students to a paid experience at around $30," Mr. Shelstad said. "If we could get that in a MOOC, that would be awesome."

MOOC students may not behave like traditional students, though. Many sign up for the free courses but don't keep up with lecture videos or assigned homework.

At least one company, Morgan & Claypool Publishers, has experimented with special pricing for texts in free online courses. With a focus on science, engineering, and computer science, the company specializes in works that are 100 to 125 pages in length—longer than journal articles but shorter than most traditional textbooks—delivered online to colleges that license them. It also sells titles individually.

Michael B. Morgan is president and CEO of Morgan & Claypool. Several of his authors teach online courses. When one called him to talk about using his book as a companion volume, Mr. Morgan decided to try an experiment. Normally a PDF download would cost $20, he said, "but we thought that the price was probably too high, especially given the broad spectrum of students taking this and how many of them are in countries where $20 is a lot to spend." So the price was set at $5.

"It went quite well," Mr. Morgan said. "We had a substantial number of downloads"—more than 5,000. The books "are easily downloadable, and we're willing to price them in a way that would work" for students taking free courses online, he said.

Resistance to Buying

The publishing experiments that take shape around online courses will have to emphasize affordability, many experts say. Online-course providers continue to draw the line at required reading, and instructors—including those with books to sell—have abided by such guidelines, at least so far.

"We do strongly urge instructors not to require any textbooks that cost money, since we want the courses to remain accessible even to students that cannot afford to purchase a textbook, including the many that don't even have a credit card," said Ms. Koller, of Coursera, in an e-mail interview.

Some instructors dig up public-domain versions of texts. Some suggest textbooks for students to rent or buy. "In some cases, that's their own book, which is not surprising given that we have been fortunate to offer a number of courses from instructors who literally 'wrote the book' in their discipline," Ms. Koller said.

One instructor who happens to be an author is Jeremy Adelman. A professor of Spanish civilization and culture at Princeton University, he will teach "A History of the World Since 1300" for Coursera this fall. Some 70,000 students have signed up. He'll simultaneously offer a version of the course to Princeton undergraduates, who will be required to buy the textbook, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present, published by W.W. Norton. The book was co-written by Mr. Adelman and fellow members and former members of the history department at Princeton.

Unlike their on-campus colleagues, the Coursera students won't have to buy the book. But Mr. Adelman said they would get a lot more out of the course if they did the reading.

"My own view is that if you're going to take a course, you've got to read," he said. "These are not TED talks. TED talks are great, but if you want to do a course, you've got to study." The reading is especially important, he added, if a student intends to do the writing assignments offered as part of the course.

The recommended edition of the book sells for $85 on Amazon, a price point likely to put off many students taking free courses. But "there are lots of options," including cheaper e-book editions to rent or buy, Mr. Adelman said. "Access is what this is all about."

He's been working with Norton to produce a stripped-down electronic version aimed at international students. Publishers are "very aware now that we've moved into a new universe of what defines a student or what makes a book," he said.

Mr. Adelman has watched the discussion in an online forum in which Coursera students share strategies on how to get their hands on some form of the book, or on other material that might help them in the course. He's even seen reports of a loose-leaf version that's going to be available in Europe.

Students, he said, "have found all kinds of intrepid ways of getting access to the material in ways I'd never imagined."