From the Tech Desk
Bible Software Companies Partners with Christian Colleges to Deliver Electronic Alternatives to Pricy Textbooks
I've written numerous times in past tech desk columns about my frustrations with textbooks. Exorbitantly expensive, rapidly out of date, and only marginally useful for many subjects, academic textbooks are my least favorite corner of the publishing industry. Targeting broke college students as your primary audience is bad enough; giving said students the option between paying $100 or $200 for a textbook, or rolling the dice at trying to navigate the course in question in question is even worse, and I freely admit that I spent most of my last two years in college taking the latter option. I did just fine, thank you very much.
Luckily, technology is slowly but surely finding new ways to kill the price-gauged print textbook. One of the companies at the head of the charge is the Faithlife Corporation, a Christian company with the claim to fame of being the world's largest developer of Bible study software. Launched in 1992 as a completely software-oriented firm (then known just as Logos Bible Software), Faithlife has since grown into a broader educational company wherein the Logos Bible Software product is just one cog in a larger machine. Among the markets that Faithlife has entered are e-learning and e-publishing, to the point that the company is now setting its sights on helping to rescue students from the dilemma of paying through the nose for textbooks, or risking failure of their courses.
So how are Faithlife taking aim at the textbook publishing industry? For starters, they've begun partnering with "iconic Christian schools" throughout the United States, developing e-textbook offerings and e-learning platforms meant to save students money without compromising their learning. The partnerships balance e-books, mobile and desktop apps, and "community pricing" structures—wherein students in a class all pay a small fee to access the same e-learning resources, instead of each person buying their own textbook. Faithlife tapped their partnerships with more than 150 publishing companies and 53,000 digital Bible study libraries—as well as their own resources, like the Christian eBook store Vyrso—to make these e-learning initiatives possible.
Faithlife's mission here—which is ostensibly to save students money by sharing the cost of learning materials—is a valiant one. But with Faithlife seeking to solve the textbook cost problem for Christian colleges, who will play that rule for other higher education institutions? According to the college ranking website StateUniversity.com, roughly 20 percent of colleges or universities in the United States (or about 1,000 institutions) are religiously affiliated. This number includes all colleges that are connected to any faith, so while Christianity would be the dominant faith among religiously affiliated higher education institutions, the number of Christian colleges in the U.S. is still markedly below 1,000. (A 2005 report from the National Center for Education Statistics put the number of Christian colleges in the United States at 570.) Estimating that the total number of degree-granting institutions in the United States is roughly at 5,000 at this point, Christian schools only account for about 11 or 12% of the country's colleges or universities.
The question then becomes who is going to solve the "exorbitantly expensive textbook" problem for students at the other 88% of colleges and universities throughout the country? Faithlife are doing something that is seriously admirable, in looking to establish e-textbook and e-learning trends at Christian schools to cut down on what students are spending on learning materials. Ultimately, though, it's unlikely that Faithlife has the products, resources, or connections to expand this initiative to secular schools. That limitation, of course, is understandable: Faithlife is a Christian-focused company; their initiatives are going to be Christian-focused as well.
Still, secular publishers and technology companies could learn a lot from what Faithlife is doing, and use the basic model of Faithlife initiative to make expensive physical textbooks a thing of the past at all colleges and universities. Whatever happens—and whoever is behind it—the shift isn't going to occur overnight. Even with e-publishing and e-learning technologies really hitting their stride now, it will probably be another 10 years before students aren't taking a $1,200 hit to buy textbooks each school year (the average as of 2012, according to a U.S. News & World Report piece). Textbook publishers and even universities (whose bookstores generate considerable revenue selling and re-selling textbooks every semester) will likely do everything they can to stall progress. But with college tuition rates rising consistently and uncontrollably, whoever figures out a way to implement a universal and inexpensive e-learning alternative to textbooks on American college campuses is going to be a national hero. Faithlife's new initiative, I hope, is only just the beginning.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.