The steady replacement of text books with ebooks could be seen as either a threat or an opportunity for booksellers, depending on their ability to adapt.

As e-books start finding their place in South African schools, many booksellers may be losing sleep over the potential for lost revenue as a result. With a decades-old model built on the sale and delivery of physical text books, booksellers are now having to confront the fact that the world is going digital and in the long term, schools will move away from paper-based text books.

There is widespread global acceptance that e-books can deliver a great deal more than the ‘linear learning’ offered by text books. E-books are able to incorporate interactive exercises and multimedia, so enhancing the journey of discovery for learners.

In South Africa, the change has been slow so far, with a relatively small proportion of schools having moved to notebook or tablet-based e-learning.  The only inhibitor to wider adoption of e-learning at this stage is the cost of devices, such as notebooks or tablet PCs, and the e-books themselves. E-books are, of necessity, priced only around 20% lower than paper-based text books.

However, all signs point to the pace of adoption picking up. Tablet PC prices are dropping, with a good quality entry level tablet now priced at around R1,500. These prices will continue to drop. The Gauteng Department of Education recently acquired 80,000 tablets for distribution to schools, underlining national and provincial authorities’ intentions to move towards e-learning in schools. We expect growing momentum in adoption as schools, teachers and learners realise the advantages of the richer, more interactive learning experience that  e-books can deliver.

This will likely force a change in booksellers’ business models, but it is far from the end of the road for them. As with all business, to survive in a changing environment, you need business agility and the ability to seize the new opportunities that are presented.

The move to e-books presents an opportunity for booksellers to expand their product set and enter the hardware channel.  Thanks to their existing good relationships with schools, booksellers are well placed to present new products such as tablet PCs to their customers. However, this move would require some level of investment and the reskilling of staff, as well as constant monitoring of technology changes, to enable staff to offer up-to-date information and support. Those unwilling to invest in an expanded product portfolio might look to partnerships with hardware vendors instead.

Booksellers could also move beyond a sales and delivery role, to one of trusted advisor and service provider, facilitating the selection and distribution of e-books at schools, and the digital rights management associated with e-books. DRM and licensing periods are still areas many educational publishers are grappling with, and managing e-book licensing may be a task schools would prefer not to take on. In a school environment where internet connections are unstable or expensive, or where staff do not have ICT training, booksellers may also be well positioned to offer support services, such as downloading e-books to the school server, the installation of the books on learners’ devices, or the training of teachers to maximise the new learning opportunities presented by e-books.

With e-books set to start going mainstream in schools over the next few years, this is an opportune time for booksellers to begin reassessing their business models, considering new partnerships and re-skilling staff, if necessary, in order to take advantage of the next big thing in education.

By Kobus van Wyk, head of e-learning initiatives at Mustek

Source: E- learning for booksellers

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