Despite efforts to digitize the classic textbook, higher education is moving beyond e-texts toward the integration of giant educational publishing platforms with university networks to create a one-stop interactive educational environment that supplies almost everything a student needs. While firms like digital publisher Inkling, educational tech company Kno, and others, are reinventing the textbook for the iPad, the ability of scalable online learning platforms to lower costs overall while improving learning outcomes could be the wave of the future., Apple, Microsoft, Google, and a host of educational startups “are all paying attention to the education market. There are lots of big players in the market now,” said Sean Devine, CEO of CourseSmart, one of these giant educational platforms. CourseSmart is an educational copublishing venture that includes the biggest textbook houses in the industry, such as Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan Higher Learning, and John Wiley.

In an interview at the PW offices, Devine called the current higher education marketplace “the Wild West.” While he acknowledges the importance of the iPad, he also pointed out that less than 10% of the U.S. student population has the device. “Most kids are still using laptops and desktops. The market goes far beyond the iPad,” Devine said.

CourseSmart has more than three million registered users (faculty and students) on its platform, and the company has had “triple-digit growth year to year,” Devine said. “We offer institutions 24/7 availability of content, and we focus on more than just e-textbooks,” he explained. Devine even said, “E-textbooks may never really take off. They will more likely converge with other products.”

The transition from print to digital by faculty and students is the big trend. Print can’t be integrated into the digital learning environment, Devine said, “while digital is not only integrated into the school, it’s integrated into the student’s life.” The CourseSmart platform provides access to digital textbooks (CourseSmart offers about 30,000 e-texts), and the system can also generate learning assessments and analytics that help students address their shortcomings. These tools even provide “homework” in the form of tests and quizzes designed to combat learning problems.

Asked about the growth of the nonprofit open source educational movement and ventures like Rice University’s Connexions Consortium or MIT’s Open Course Ware—academic ventures that select and organize educational content and distribute it to educators for free—Devine questioned whether the ventures are “sustainable; is there a business plan? Will faculty use it and what is the quality? It’s all nonprofit and like Linux [the nonprofit open source server software], it needs to have commercial ventures built on top of it to make it viable.”

Devine said another “big trend” is the move to site licenses—contracting with institutions to provide content to an entire school or selected subject categories for a flat price—and cited companies like digital textbook publisher Flatworld Knowledge that also use this approach. And despite studies that show students may be reluctant to switch to digital texts, site licenses essentially require students to go digital. “Forty percent of our business is now coming from licenses,” he said, noting that pricing (often a flat fee per student) can be folded into a school’s student fee or as part of tuition costs. “It helps keep costs low,” he said, “and publishers are compensated for every use of their content. It helps build the platform.” The practice, he said, is prevalent at for-profit schools, like the University of Phoenix, but conventional two- and four-year colleges are using it also. “Twenty-five percent of our new users came through this kind of campus network integration,” Devine said. “Students sign up, get a single logon, and access to CourseSmart for all of their class material. That is where the world is headed.”

“Kids are going everywhere to get their materials,” Devine said, “but we’re moving to a one-stop shopping approach. It’s the school bookstore of the future.”