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The Etext Revolution: Rewriting the Textbook Model

By David Siminoff - Posted May 1, 2013
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A few years ago, a bottle of WD-40 was sprayed on the tracks of high-value learning. The bottle’s label read “Online Learning.” The engine driving the train on those tracks was and is the advent and popularization of digital textbooks and mobile, modular curriculum, which will forever change the dynamics of reading, writing, and arithmetic in the classroom.

The textbook industry is undergoing a transformation. For a century or so, textbook companies have competed, grown, bought each other, and wound up an oligopoly (of sorts) with very high-price protections and onerous gates and restrictions created by their lobbies to make it harder for competitors to enter the marketplace. A typical textbook sales cycle is more than 6 years, and a typical budget to break into a category exceeds $100 million with little to no certainty of making any of that money back.

Then things changed. The internet allowed for the paperless distribution of text and pictures asynchronously—at any time, to any place, in any format. Trees’ lives were to be saved and, more importantly, the quality of information available to students was set to be upgraded dramatically.


A typical textbook, which retails for $100, has a marginal cost of about $7 per unit (that’s the paper, ink, hardback, and shipping in bulk). So … where did the remaining $93 go? Commissions. Debt service on the highly leveraged, publicly traded companies that own those textbooks. Commissions. A royalty here and there for the use of this picture and that picture (often where the royalty was paid to another division of the large public corporation—think “transfer price”). And commissions.

Has there been any real R&D in the creation and publication of textbooks in the last 40 years? Have fractions changed at all? How about the keys to writing a provocative thesis sentence? What about history? Well, OK, add a chapter for Reagan. Then another for Clinton. What about the Mars Rover and new-age technology gains? Chapter worthy. Budget a buck and you’ve more than covered those incremental costs. If you look at many hardcover textbooks today, they didn’t even go to the trouble of updating for more modern events.

One giant gate preventing competition has been onerous regulatory requirements, which were promulgated largely by the enfranchised textbook companies themselves, digging a wide moat around their castles designed to keep out competition. These companies are not to be blamed or derided for that dig: They are owned by shareholders who want economic returns on their investments, and the companies were just doing what was in the best interests of shareholders (if not necessarily in the best interests of students).

The moats were wide and forbidding—until the internet came along and made new material just a click away. The shift to core standards may offer districts an opportunity to acquire new materials or pieces of new materials that fit individual needs.


The result of this suite of clarifications has been to open the door for education entrepreneurs to help program the classroom. After almost a century of government bureaucracy-dominated “creativity” in delivering compelling courses to students, the openings for upgrades appear to be vast.

Several years ago, my wife and I launched a startup called Shmoop, a site designed to approach learning in a fun, lighthearted manner and predicated on the belief that students do not thrive when presented with the same hackneyed texts and teaching guides their predecessors have been using for decades.

By giving students access to the materials online, we can keep our content fresh and new. Chapters are not stamped indelibly onto static sheets of paper; instead, our offerings take the form of living, breathing, ever-evolving vessels of information. If new data comes to light, sweeping changes can be made quickly and effortlessly; if it becomes apparent that a certain guide or method of test preparation is even moderately ineffective, it can be immediately gutted and replaced with more valuable materials. Content isn’t squeezed into and pressed out of a plastic mold—it is malleable, versatile, and adaptable.

Suppose a teacher is composing a vocab lesson for the students in his English class. Procuring words from the textbook the school has been using since 1987, he grabs such oldies but goodies as “deliciate,” “younker,” and “brabble.” Wonderful … except that these words are obsolete. They may still be found in certain online dictionaries, which obviously do not have any space restrictions, but most other dictionaries have removed them because … well, these words don’t get much play anymore.

On the flip side of the coin, if a teacher wanted to add some contemporary flair and test her students on such newfangled vocabulary as “jeggings,” “bromance,” or “noob,” she’d have a hard time tracking down the definitions in the 1987 version. Kids in the ’80s did plenty of “chillaxing,” but they certainly didn’t refer to it that way. Frankie does not say chillax.

And it isn’t just a matter of functionality. It is also one of familiarity. While some older fuddy-duddies may be resistant to the idea, we are living in the digital age—period. Our children are practically born with Playstation controllers in their hands, they can program the DVR before they’re out of diapers, and before they’ve entered kindergarten, they’re helping mommy and daddy organize their financial records on Quicken. Technological devices—and the internet in particular—make the next generation comfortable. This is where they feel in control.


Numerous other companies and organizations have picked up on the trend and are following suit. From brick-and-mortar educational facilities that are expanding their reach to online communities to digital learning resources that exist solely in cyberland, the movement is surely and steadily progressing toward internet-accessible programs and away from musty old books on dusty old shelves.

The image of children trudging home with 20-pound backpacks will soon hopefully belong to the past. Technology allows for a digital modularization of content, which can be sliced and diced and coordinated under national or regional guidelines to best fit the local needs of teachers and students. Even the most stalwart proponents of heavy federal regulation in the industry agree that individual teachers know their students better than Uncle Sam does.

Teachers have only a limited amount of time with those individuals that have been placed under their tutelage, and every moment is immeasurably precious. Why should they have to fritter away invaluable minutes covering what they judge to be repetitive or insignificant tidbits of information, when they have the chance to construct a syllabus comprised entirely of rich, juicy knowledge? We train these educators to be teachers—not to be mere conveyors of facts and figures. So why not give them the optimal tools with which to do their job?


Much debate crosses the chasm relating which physical media will win. Nobody is right. There is no clear winner. However, there is a clear loser: paper. Traditional textbooks. The old slow-cycle, epiphany-sucking, dehumanizing devolvement of the publication of educational systems—which numb the minds of our children rather than stimulate them—is dead.

Learning is a sense-based experience—sight, sound, taste, touch are all part of the process in which bodies digest knowledge. Making learning social and shared is an equally important part of the equation. And sharing things that are personal and connective is a core component of a robust classroom experience, whether that classroom is live, virtual, or both.


So let’s imagine the state of digital learning 10, 20 years down the road.

Because the cost of physical distribution and production has plummeted, the price point of etextbooks has gone down, making them more liquidly available for everyone. The experience is a shared, social one, which encourages collaboration and an open exchange of ideas, rather than the previously solitary endeavor of poring over a physical document under the dim light of a study carrel. Educators are able to cobble together those portions of various textbooks that they deem worthwhile, personalizing a course that caters to their own, individual style of teaching as well as to the strengths of their particular students. The process of evaluating these various textbooks is streamlined, with access to a plethora of reference materials at their fingertips. And for the publishers of these textbooks, any updates to history or advancements in the sciences can be added to their existing content with ease.

History is the story of the 10–20 billion people who have ever lived on this planet. It isn’t one story. It is the compendium of experiential Stone Soup. Everyone should be given a venue in which they contribute to history with their take on whether or not The New Deal was a good deal or a bad one, what “compelling” means in a thesis sentence, and whether or not Gatsby was a narcissist. Those shared individual interpretations make learning round and full and felt—not just known.

And that kind of intimate interactivity operating on so many levels is a connection that just can’t happen in a stapled morass of dead trees and ink.

David Siminoff is the chief creative officer and founder of Shmoop. Reach him at

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