Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Unveils Two E-Textbooks for K-12; Small but Growing Market?

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

Educational and trade publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has unveiled two new e-textbooks aimed at the promising K-12 education market. The move capitalizes on partnerships with Apple and the History channel and signals the company’s intentions to invest in its digital e-textbook business.

Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced today that it would offer two new social studies e-textbooks for sale in the iBooks store, The American and World History: Patterns of Interaction, as of Aug. 1. Sample chapters are already available in the iBooks store.

The special features of the e-texbooks include History channel videos, audio clips, photo galleries, 3D graphics and animated maps, section quizzes and features enabled by iBooks, like text highlighting, notes, bookmarking and search.

HMH leveraged a long-standing partnership with the History channel to enhance the content of the e-textbooks in an effort to create a better, more engaging learning product than a traditional print textbook, according to Bethlam Forsa, executive vice president of global product and content development for HMH.

“We are looking at anything that helps the child learn better and engagement is a critical factor in learning,” said Forsa. According to Forsa, learning experiences enhanced by interactive content are more engaging to young students and therefore help them learn better.

A small study HMH performed with its FUSE math app in Riverside, Calif. among middle school students during the 2010-2011 academic year suggests that students might learn better with interactive material versus a traditional textbook – at least in math. Nearly a fifth more of the students who were taught using the FUSE app scored proficient or advanced on the California Standards Test in algebra – 78% versus 59% for those students who were taught with traditional textbooks.

Math, social studies and science are subjects that can greatly benefit from interactive e-textbooks, as opposed to literature, which might not benefit as much, said Forsa.


The Size of the Market

According to Bookstats, a report on the book industry compiled by the Book Industry Study Group and the Association of American Publishers, the K-12 education market was about $5 billion in 2010, the latest year for which numbers are currently available. (The next iteration of Bookstats comes out in early June 2012 and will provide insight into the 2011 book market.)

The percentage of that $5 billion that is digital is too small to be significant right now, according to Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at Bowker Market Research who is among those responsible for putting together the Bookstats report.

“Digital is still really small. But with the small numbers, the growth potential is exponential and you have publishers who are really trying to capitalize on this opportunity,” said Gallagher. “With Apple supporting them, it could really be a game-changer.”

HMH was among a handful of publishers that partnered with Apple on the launch of the new iteration of iTunes U, Apple’s educational section within the iBooks store. The new version of iTunes U, which allows professors to create syllabi, post messages to students and run other professorial functions remotely, had HMH e-textbooks available for sale from launch on Jan. 19.

Despite the current size of the market, HMH is optimistic about its potential. For instance the FUSE app is currently being used in 127 school districts and private schools, a number that is growing all the time, according to an HMH spokesperson. By comparison, there were nearly 14,000 public school districts in 2009 and nearly 34,000 private schools 2010 in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a government-run statistics organization.


Chasing the Opportunity

The small size of the digital K-12 market hasn’t stopped publishers from exploring e-textbooks.

HMH was joined by educational publishers McGraw-Hill and Pearson on the day of the Apple announcement as early providers of e-textbooks. Inkling, a creator, seller and distributor of e-textbooks, recently launched an e-textbook creation tool for professional use, hoping to enable publishers to create more e-textbooks for its store. And a middle-school class even dabbled in the creation of an e-textbook using the Apple iBooks Author software.

“In the next three-to-five years, we’re going to hit critical mass in the proliferation of tablets in the classroom,” said Forsa. “I consider critical mass to be north of 30 to 35%.”

Forsa estimates that in countries like South Korea, where adoption of digital technologies has traditionally been faster that in the U.S., that number will be higher, sooner.

The key to growth in the K-12 e-textbook market, according to both Forsa and Gallagher, is the penetration of tablets in classrooms.

“There are some really significant budget deficits, especially in some of the largest purchasing states such as California and New York,” said Gallagher. “Will schools be able to get any kind of funding for purchase of tablets to grow this in the future in any significant way? It’s going to happen, but the pace of change is out of our control and in the hands of the taxpayers.”


HMH Presses Ahead

When HMH creates new products now, it plans for enhanced e-textbooks and other interactive products from the outset. The company wants to be everywhere its readers are, regardless of the device – paper and binding or silicone and electrons.

Planning for the future, Forsa, who oversees content creation, technology, product, design and author relations for HMH’s K-12 efforts, builds curricula with “maximum flexibility, so we can adjust to the changing market.”

According to Forsa, cost of producing the e-textbooks is not prohibitive at this point, even with the small market, though she would not go into details of what those costs entail.

“Change is coming faster than we thought,” she said, adding that the question for HMH and others now is, “How do we continue to be core to this market?”

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