At a recent sit-down with executives representing one of the biggest players in the textbook industry, my colleague and I felt surprisingly out of touch.
The executives spent most of the meeting touting the evolving market, namely how their newfound allegiance to digital learning materials—rather than old-school physical textbooks—would place them at the forefront of the new wave of education technology. Rhetoric describing the company’s unmatched innovation pervaded the hour-long meeting; they raved about the company’s across-the-board shift to digital, how its new state-of-the-art materials comprise a "single roadmap" that is expected to make its generic, stodgy textbooks obsolete. They largely dismissed us as we—online journalists and Millennials in our mid-20s—reminisced about physical books that can be held, highlighted, and leafed through. And it quickly became evident that these men expected us to marvel at the company’s developments because, as soon as they noticed our eyes weren’t lighting up, they balked: "I don’t think you understand how groundbreaking this is," one of them said.
These executives certainly seem to have popular opinion on their side. Textbooks, which have long accounted for various subjects’ bulk of in-class learning materials, have garnered much vitriol in recent years. For some, the discontent starts as early as elementary school; heavy books can result in chronic back pain for children. But by the time those students are in college, textbooks are much more than a mere nuisance. What was once heavy burden on the back becomes an even heavier strain on the wallet. According to a recent College Board report, university students typically spend as much as $1,200 a year total on textbooks.