Thursday, August 23, 2012

The eText Conundrum - A BYOT Fiasco Resolved Over 6 Days, Part I

Let me preface this rant (and oh, there will be ranting) with the following disclaimer: I don't really believe any of the actors in this situation are evil. Self-interested? Sure. Willing to dodge issues and give problems to others? Absolutely. But there is no need to assign maliciousness when incompetence will suffice. And the more complex a system, the more room incompetence has to stretch its legs. and with that...

BYOT Day 6:

I receive an email with the subject line "may be time for you to get involved". Attached is a string of increasingly frustrating correspondences between my science teachers, the 3rd party book distributor that the school uses, and @Pearson publishers.

The tale of woe features the Freshman Biology textbook. In the spirit of BYOT and after surveying students, the science department decided last spring to require the eText version of the Biology textbook. This was news to the IT department. We thought we had a handle on all of the classes doing this (we have about 4 classes with mandatory eTexts, ranging from PDFs to Kindle books to Publisher/Distributor branded formats). In fact, we had specifically avoided making some classes mandatory since the e-text came from Pearson Publishing.

Interlude: What's So Wrong with Pearson?
Pearson publishing is one of the big names in textbooks and there are not all that many names. For those of you not in education or only in the technical side of education, textbooks are a BIG DEAL. Publishers send local sales reps to show off the newest in textbooks and supplemental materials. For years, these supplemental materials have taken the form of technology and in very recent years, eText access has been huge. Any one of the many issues with this nexus of for-profit business and the generally not-for-profit vocation of education could be the focus of one of my really long blogs.

Pearson, as all good businesses do, wants teachers to use as many of its products as possible. A step in this direction has been the creation of a virtual empire of educational online services that leverage their high-quality textbooks to hook teachers (and subsequently students) into its other offerings. If every student in a school has been entered into the Pearson LMS with its myriad of assignments, notes, reading checks, etc., because of one textbook purchase, then why would any teacher want to choose another publisher's text? Thus the quality of one book, tied to a learning management platform, makes it that much easier for a department/teacher/school to make Pearson the publisher of choice for other books. Got it? When you choose Pearson, you buy into the entire Pearson mega-system.

One problem with this system is that the books in question are not always available cross platform. When we were testing books last year, it became impossible to get a guarantee from the publisher that the books would work on all of the devices we expected to see in our BYOT environment. That is one problem.
End Interlude

Back to the story.

This parrot and I are now besties
Turns out that the Biology textbook, Miller and Levine's BIOLOGY, came with a code. This is not the typical "student gets a code in an envelope with their book" type system. This is a code for the teacher. The teacher logs into what we'll call Pearson Database ALPHA with this code. They create classes and from the classes, a student code is generated. The teacher then (comes directly from the instructions that were emailed with the code) distributes the classroom code to those students who can prove that they have purchased the code. One method to check this consumer eligibility was to match the student with a list of "people who have purchased the book" -- which may or may not be a name similar to the student! If the name cannot be matched, they are not to give the code.

Just to clarify, the way that this is SUPPOSED to work is:
  1. teacher receives access code
  2. teacher creates account with code and sets up at least one course
  3. teachers generates a single student code for all students
  4. teachers USES CLASS TIME to play bookstore manager/accountant/distribution clerk rather than focusing on the task at hand, which, we hope, is TEACHING!
This is a waste of teacher time, class time, and student time. It makes the final steps of this profit-making venture part a teacher's classroom responsibility for no discernible student or classroom benefit. In fact, if a student is rejected by the teacher for not making the list (or not realizing Aunt Sally purchased the textbook), it could alter the teacher-student relationship from day one. If a student has to explain that she is on the list as a student who receives books as part of financial aid, the subsequent embarrassment could change the teacher-student relationship.

The way it is SUPPOSED to work is insane.

The code did not work.

After contacting the @mbsbooks, our 3rd party distributor, the teacher received another code. 

The code did not work.

When the @pearson support number was called by our teachers, they were told that the problem was that we purchased through a 3rd party and not directly from @pearson.


Interlude: What So Wrong with Pearson?
This is a default justification that we have heard for 4 years. We first heard it when we were told that the only way to receive "supplemental" language materials was by direct purchase. We were told this despite having e-mails from Pearson stating otherwise (pre-sale). We were told this when local sales reps could not comp. teacher's editions (a common practice in education).

Here is the thing. Local sales reps make commission (or magic-fairy-dust-points or whatever) based on sales. I completely understand the frustration in having to spend time and effort selling to schools that don't improve their balance sheet in the end. We do not expect the same level of go-to support unless we are told that it will be offered (and we have been told that) But...

Pearson makes the choice to sell through 3rd parties. It is in their interest to do so. If my teachers have a clear understanding of will and will not be forthcoming as a result of using MBS, they can decide accordingly. What happens, in writing, is a promise of one thing pre-sale and a lack of follow-through post. We chose the Pearson sold eText through our distributor because it was available and we expected it to work. 
End Interlude

We slowly and calmly explained that the code we received, even the first one, did not come from MBS, but was a code given to us from Pearson (as if the codes could be generated by MBS for use on a Pearson system?), We were moved, just as slowly, up the support chain.

Finally, after frustrated teachers: "I had no idea that it was going to be this complicated", frustrated department chairs, "We have to use this book. They have us over a barrel.", frustrated 3rd party sales reps. "They must have a code that will actually work!", one of our teachers received a code that let her access Pearson Database ALPHA (Turns out the first code was for Pearson Database BETA which is used for the Chemistry book, no clue what was wrong with the second code).

The teacher created her account. The teacher generated the student code.

The student code did not work.

More phone calls. More teeth gnashing. More MBS vs. Pearson rhetoric.

On Day 6 of school, with yet another code, students were able to successfully open their laptops, surf to a website, enter a new teacher-generated code, create a user account, and, if the pop-up blocker was off and they were not using Internet Explorer (script error)...open their Biology Textbook.

whew.

...but it didn't open on Tablets

End Part I