Like many other people I have a less than perfectly reliable internet connection, and that has taught me that having an offline copy is only prudent. So when I read about that the Fairfax Public Schools and now CourseSmart have encountered with online textbooks, I can't help but wonder why no one saw it coming.
CourseSmart is widely recognized as the leader of the digital textbook market. This start-up was founded by major textbook publishers in 2007 and is now used by hundreds of schools. Or at least it was used by hundreds of schools - right up until the servers crashed earlier this week.
Numerous Twitter users (and CourseSmart has ) that CourseSmart's servers went down on Tuesday. Based on the complaints it seems to have lasted an entire afternoon, denying students access to their online textbooks.
Anyone who uses online services is used to crashes, I'm sure. Twitter, Tumblr, and even parts of Google have crashed on occasion. For a while there Twitter was even crashing on a fairly regular schedule. So it might not seem all that newsworthy that CourseSmart has joined the club.
But unlike those other services, CourseSmart isn't free nor is it one that users can get by without. The students harmed this week had paid upwards of $100 for their digital textbooks, only to be denied access when they needed it the most.
The servers crashed during exam week, a time when many of these students were either getting in some last minute studying or finishing up work to hand in. As one student tweeted, "I have a final exam tomorrow at 9 am with two chapters left to read. A quick fix to this would be appreciated." And even those who didn't have exams last week were frustrated by the downtime: "Ever feel like spending a crap load of money on something that will fail when you need it most? Buy a digital textbook from @coursesmart".
The fault here can be laid squarely on the shoulders of CourseSmart's DRM policies, which limit how much a student can download at one time. A student is only allowed to "check-out" up to 5 of the rented digital textbooks at once. The textbooks are also downloaded by the chapter, so if a student didn't have toe foresight to download what they needed before the out of luck.
Update: An earlier version of the above paragraph mentioned that CourseSmart had an online-only option at a cheaper price. This is incorrect. I had unfortunately confused CourseSmart with one of their competitors.
CourseSmart hasn't shared an explanation for the crash, but this happened during an exam week, so I would guess that the servers were operating at maximum capacity and were unable to meet the demands placed on them. If that is correct then this won't be the last time that CourseSmart's servers will go down.
There is a growing push to force students to adopt digital textbooks, and with CourseSmart recognized as the market leader they are probably going to gain the most users. That is going to mean higher and higher demands being placed on CourseSmart's servers, so I would not be surprised to learn that CourseSmart becomes known for crashing during exam week.
Paper textbooks, anyone?
image by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives