Artificially intelligent software is reshaping traditional teaching materials—but it’s unclear what the new technology will take away from the learning experience.

Will a new business model accelerate the digital revolution in course materials?

For nearly two decades, industry commentators have heralded the impending death of the physical textbook. The prediction is rooted in common sense assumptions. Digital materials should be both more immersive and personalized than their physical counterparts, leading to better learning outcomes. Meanwhile, supply chain efficiencies achieved by digital distribution should result in lower prices for students. With the promise of a better product at a lower price point, prognosticators suggest, the digital revolution must be right around the corner.

Nostalgia aside, it may come as a relief to many, then, that textbooks are becoming anachronistic. Digital in-class learning materials, like software that adapts to the ways in which individual students acquire information, and other forms of virtual education content are becoming more effective and intelligent. College-affordability advocates and others hope this growth could result in the normalization of less costly or even free materials down the road.

“Technology is a means; it’s not an end. And it’s become an end within this country.”

Senack is, of course, right to say that technology has changed how the textbook market operates. But that evolution, at least initially, hasn’t happened in the way cash-strapped students may have hoped. Many college courses still use physical textbooks and mandate digital content as an add-on—complete with end-of-semester expiration dates, which undermine resale value, for example. These new strategies are exactly what irk Senack: “They [the publishers] have continued the same practices they’ve used to limit the spread of knowledge … It’s just a continuation of the bad practices.

“And yet, as we near the end of 2016, the evidence for revolution is mixed. According to the major academic publishers, digital products have secured a commanding market position. Pearson reports that digital revenues now account for more than 50 percent of total sales, while McGraw-Hill announced that digital unit sales overtook print unit sales in its U.S. Higher Education Group in 2015. But anonymous student purchasing data, gathered from millions of users across hundreds of campus bookstore price comparison-shopping sites, tells a different story. When users were presented with new, used, rental, and digital offerings from top retailers, digital units comprised only 2.9 percent of all units purchased.