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John Gallaugher adopts rapid-response publishing
John Gallaugher is a professor of information systems in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, and he teaches on subjects such as social media, the software industry, and online marketing. The classic textbook in his field is Corporate Information Strategy and Management: Text and Cases, a 528-page, 1.8-pound volume that sells for $195. First published in 1996, it is now in its eighth edition. Gallaugher stopped assigning it in 1997.
“Overwhelmingly, the feedback from students was that it read like an encyclopedia,” he says.
Instead, Gallaugher began using a mix of materials: articles from the popular business press and case studies he’d written that he distributed to his class almost exclusively online at his website Gallaugher.com. In the course of his research he examined a growing trend in pedagogical publishing: the electronic textbook. Digital and downloadable, this alternative to “dead-tree” printing is capable of delivering information that is fresh, easily accessible, and inexpensive.
In spring 2007, Gallaugher was approached by the founders of Flat World Knowledge, an online publisher of “remixable textbooks” based in Irvington, New York. They had seen the class materials posted on his website and proposed that he create a book. In Flat World’s business model, Gallaugher recognized a strategy that not only cut deeply into production and overhead costs for the publisher but also scaled down the long lead times that plague authors of traditional paper-and-ink books.
He started writing in fall 2007. He completed a manuscript 18 months later and spent another six weeks working with the editorial staff at Flat World on revisions. Throughout the process, he was able to post in-progress chapters on his website and make use of reader feedback (from spelling corrections to suggestions of web links), while updating numbers and examples. He continued adding new content in the months prior to the title’s formal launch.
Information Systems: A Manager’s Guide to Harnessing Technology was published officially in July 2010. The 326-page book is available in various formats, all of which incorporate the layout of a traditional textbook. Students can view it free online at Flat World’s website. They also can purchase the title as an e-book to read on a tablet device or as a PDF to view on a computer screen and print out at home (printing directly from the website, however, eliminates much of the book’s formatting). According to Gallaugher, most of his students purchase the title as a black-and-white, soft-cover volume that looks just like any other textbook. Flat World prints these copies on demand at independent printers around the country, shipping the finished product directly to students or to outlets that make purchases in bulk.
At $25 for an e-book to $36 for a soft-cover color copy, Information Systems costs a fraction of the tome Gallaugher used to assign to his classes. With colleges and universities scrambling to contain textbook costs in response to provisions of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (which requires them to supply textbook prices with their course schedules and requires publishers to brief faculty on edition changes and price options), and with publishers trying to bolster bottom lines, e-textbooks are an increasingly attractive option. Media industry forecaster Simba Information projects the market will grow at a rate of nearly 50 percent during the next three years. Accordingly, leading educational publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall have debuted e-textbooks for Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. Flat World intends to boost its catalogue from 41 titles to 60 by spring of 2012 and, in the next few years, to publish textbooks for the 125 college courses with the highest-enrollments.
Gallaugher has been instructing on information systems for 14 years. He writes “The Week in Geek,” a blog digest of news about “the intersection of business and technology.” And he was an early adopter of Twitter, wikis, and podcasts as teaching tools. (He was also the first Boston College professor to offer all of his lectures as MP3 downloads). But what most excites him about the online book format is not the technology—it’s the creative freedom.
“There was no pressure to have a section on this or a chapter on that in order to sell more copies to a network of state universities or community colleges,” he says. “This was my product, as opposed to something shaped and designed by committee. I own the copyright.”
Case studies in his book focus on companies with high student appeal—Zara (the Spanish fast-fashion chain), Netflix, Facebook, Google—and are presented in a conversational tone. Hyperlinks and YouTube clips supplement the content. “I tried to write in a voice that you’d find in BusinessWeek or Wired,” Gallaugher says, “to convey enthusiasm yet not [sacrifice] serious concepts.”
After Flat World uploaded a beta version of the textbook in fall 2009, Gallaugher found that within 48 hours readers on every continent except Antarctica had visited the site, with many visitors downloading material. E-mails praising the text began arriving from as far away as Saudi Arabia and New Zealand.
Today, Information Systems is being used by more than 130 professors, at schools ranging from Carnegie Mellon University to the University of Maryland to New York University. Not a week goes by without Gallaugher hearing from students, faculty, or business practitioners who have discovered the text in Vietnam, say, or Bolivia or Kenya. Some professors are customizing it for their courses, as Flat World permits, deleting chapters, rearranging sections, and adding their own notes and multimedia.
The new format is not without drawbacks or detractors. Electronic textbooks aren’t as easy to highlight or bookmark as their print counterparts, and they can be hard to read on the small screens of laptops and tablet devices, prompting some educators to fret that chapters will ultimately become shorter and their content simpler. Critics also complain that many e-textbook files “self-destruct”—that they deny the user access to the downloaded file—after a set period of time, usually a semester or a year. (Gallaugher’s book does not.) And, already, there are e-textbooks with advertising.
Gallaugher won’t carry commercials. And even he says that studying a textbook online remains no match for flipping through actual pages. “There’s a saying in publishing, ‘You can’t beat books for bandwidth,’ and it’s an accurate one,” he says. “I have the iPad, and it’s nice for reading articles or copying and pasting notes. But when it comes to the very different experience of consuming a textbook, you want to be able to highlight, mark up the margins, and find things quickly in class. I still don’t think that the digitally delivered piece is best for that.”
Its portability, however, is a big advantage. Gallaugher points out that students can access his textbook on their iPhone while on the go, or travel home without lugging a heavy hardcover. (The book does not come bundled, though—students have to purchase formats individually.) Flat World sells audio versions and offers electronic companion study aids, such as flashcards and practice quizzes.
Gallaugher says he’s too much of a geek to imagine that in five years the conversation about digital learning will be the same. As tablet devices evolve, reading on a digital screen will become easier and cheaper. But technology development isn’t his primary concern. Content is. If the material isn’t stimulating and fresh, he maintains, students aren’t going to embrace it, no matter what the format.
As a result, Gallaugher is already revising his text. He’s slashed copy about the flagging social network site MySpace and increased content about Twitter. He’s added information about location-based services such as Foursquare. And he’s expanded a section on how firms can create a “Social Media Awareness Response Team,” based partly on research that he conducted with Boston College colleagues Robert Fichman and Jerry Kane and health care executive John Glaser (written up in the November 2009 Harvard Business Review). “To be able to update the material so regularly is really important,” he says, adding “it’s fun to deliver a product that has the potential to disrupt all the crazy forces that I study and teach.”
Alicia Potter is a Boston-based writer.
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