A Shift from Printed Page to Screen?


Posted to WWWDEV 01 December 1998

I'm currently involved in discussions with a consortium of publishers, printers and bookstores who want to pilot a scheme whereby the instructor gives the consortium a list of essential, recommended and extension readings and they get copyright clearance and put them on line. Once on line the instructor can annotate the readings, the students can search for topics, read off the screen and then select articles for printing. The printers prints, the bookstores sells for a nominal cost. Academic writers and publishers get some return for their efforts, and as student only pay for what they want/need their costs are reduced.

This is a good idea, however...

  • if the full text of the readings is available online, students will soon learn to read them online rather than pay a fee (yes there will be some revenue from printouts, but I suspect less than expected and certainly declining over time), or
  • if the full text is not available online, then there will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the need to waste paper printing the articles out instead of viewing them online

I'd like to keep advertising out of the classroom as long as possible.

I agree. The reason for keeping advertising out of classrooms (and therefore, out of student reading materials) is that in classroom materials, there must be an a priori presumption of accuracy and truthfulness (otherwise the materials are not useful as teaching materials), and advertising has historically not been particularly accurate or truthful. The merging of (assumed to be) accurate material and (generally) inaccurate material tends to lead to unwarrented doubts about the former or unwarrented credibility to the latter.

Or, to put the point another way: we do not want our children to come home saying either:

  • "I was taught that Spain is in Europe, but that's just hype." or
  • "I was taught that Coke is good for you, so it must be true."

But the problem is then...

How do you pay for online texts and other materials?

Despite the publishers' love of print, it *can't* be on a per-print basis, for the reasons mentioned above. Publishers will have to make money from their non- printed online content. But they can't make money via online advertising, for the reasons mentioned above. Publishers will have to make their money online *without* advertising.

The only other alternative (aside from government funding or charitable donations) is pay-per-view or subscription services. But this carries its own risks. It is very hard to charge subscriptions for anything on the web, because there are many equally good and free resources on the same topic. Moreover, there is as yet no reliable means of charging school-children for page views.

My solutions?

1. The publishers are going to have to get out of the text-only (or text graphics) game. If they want products they can sell online, they will have to add value to the textual and graphical information.

2. The publishers will have to focus on developing online learning resources, complete with self-test quizzes, animations, video or audio, etc etc. (this presupposes greater bandwidth and/or compression than we have today, but that's a safe presumption) which add value to the original content produced by authors. (In other words, they have to blow their free competition out of the water).

3. Publishers need a mechanism for allowing intermediaries to distribute their content. That is because there is no upside to charging children micro-cents for page views. They want to charge for hundreds or thousands of views at a time. Thus, they charge the intermediary, who takes their material, packages it with other (similar) material, discussion and online support, and sells it as a package.

This method works because the intermediary and the publisher can use cooperating software. The software would act a lot like a water meter, counting accesses to the publisher's resource. The publisher doesn't care who accessed the material, only that it was accessed through the intermediary. The publisher sends a monthly information bill to the intermediary. The intermediary sells a service (which includes, in part, access to the publisher's information) to the general public.

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