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What’s new for college textbooks?

You’ve probably seen the articles predicting the end of printed copy or declaring the book format as “dead.” People are increasingly choosing eBooks over print versions and schools continue to develop eBook initiatives. Publishers are also offering more interactivity in the digital format. What does all of this mean for textbooks?

eTextbook Trends

Online students receive their textbooks much in the same way traditional students do – via an online bookstore (e.g. Amazon, or through their school's bookstore (e.g. Kaplan University's MBS Direct site). The move to eBooks began with simple PDF files, but more interactive files with multimedia and note-taking capabilities are becoming popular. The ways in which students both purchase and consume textbook content are changing.

  • Renting vs. Buying:  According to the National Association of College Stores, more than 2,400 of its 3,000 members provided textbook rental services in January 2010. This was up from 300 member bookstores in 2009. This trend is moving to digital textbooks as well. Beginning with the upcoming school year, students will be able to rent textbooks through Amazon's Kindle store. The Kindle Reader app makes it possible to read the available textbooks on a variety of devices ranging from smartphones to tablets to desktop computers. Campus Technology reports that students will pay according to the amount of time they want to access the rental book.
  • Open Educational Resources: You'll find a host of textbook titles available online in an open (free and customizable) format. The Community College Open Textbooks Collaborative is a nonprofit organization that is providing access to textbooks and increasing awareness of the open textbook movement. Search their catalog that includes of hundreds of titles organized by subject. Flatworld Knowledge provides paid versions of texts, by format, but you can also access their collection for free, online. This service also works directly with school instructors.
  • Publisher Systems: Online companion sites for printed books are not new. For years, publishers have provided students with access to supplementary textbook content (i.e. slide presentations, flashcards, related articles) on their websites. Publishers are increasing their online presence with additional services for eTextbooks. CourseSmart is an example of a collaborative effort among publishers. Through this system, students can purchase and access digital books and resources, as well as take notes, highlight, copy/paste, and print. 
  • Online Libraries: Shasta College is just one example of a school that is providing students will access to eBooks as a service of its online library. The University of Texas at Austin also offers eBook "check outs." Their Electronic Books webpage includes a list of helpful resources, many of which are open and available to the public.
  • Options for Interaction: As the technologies involved in publishing and accessing digital files evolve, so do the capabilities of the files. Systems like CafeScribe offer social media connections so that you can share your notes or highlights with other students. The increased ability to embed multimedia content means that you can view video demonstrations or interact with 3D models within the textbook file. Take a look at a brief TED presentation, "A next-generation digital book," that illustrates what may be on the horizon.

Going digital is going global. Earlier this month, according to a Business Insider report, South Korea announced a 2015 goal to "replace textbooks and all paper in its schools with tablets." Digital textbooks will also be made available in the cloud

Digital textbooks are also not limited to use in higher education. The State of Florida, for example, has mandated all of its public school districts go to digital textbooks by the 2015-2016 school year. The state will be reviewing the transition in a few pilot schools, where eReaders are provided to students, and there may be changes to the requirements based on budgets and student outcomes. Meanwhile, one high school has already made the switch. 

What are students saying?

Several months ago, Inside Higher Ed reported on a Pearson Foundation study that asked college students about both tablet use and eTextbooks. While the overwhelming majority of students surveyed believed that tablet computers, such as the iPad, have educational value, most preferred printed textbooks to electronic versions. Current issues of limited student ownership of tablets and their perceived use of them as devices for non-textbook reading uses, are potential challenges. This will be an interesting survey to replicate as the use of tablet computers increases and as textbook publishers produce more interactive versions of their digital offerings.

Both students and faculty using the Kindle eReader at Princeton University have found it to be a challenge. In a three course pilot program, conducted in 2009, making the switch from print to digital came with a learning curve. Traditional study techniques of making annotations in the margins, highlighting and underlining, all require a new process with the new technology. The eReader was credited with having an easy to read screen, and for allowing users to carry around a large number of resources all accessed via the device. A similar study at the University of Washington, reported in Fast Company earlier this year, found similar benefits and challenges. Students in this study also missed the ability to "skim" a chapter, a task that is possible with a hard-copy book. 

Tablet computers, with multimedia capabilities not found in eReaders, may make a difference in how digital textbooks are used and perceived as useful by both students and faculty. Reed College conducted a 2010 pilot program in which students in one course used iPads for all course reading assignments. This same course had been used for a 2009 study with the Kindle. College administrators found some advantages to the iPad: annotating and highlighting features were better received, and users were able to have multiple texts open at once and switch back and forth among them. 

Weighing the Pros and Cons

The move from print to digital has both benefits and challenges. There is potential to integrate more content, link to additional resources, and add interactive and multimedia components. But making the move will mean an adjustment in perspective and habit for both students and faculty. Both the formats of the digital resources and the technologies of the devices that give us access to these resources will continue to evolve.

Costs are an issue for almost every student, online and traditional, and only time will tell if renting, or purchasing, digital versions of required textbooks becomes more affordable. As long as used print copies of current editions are available, they may still be the cheapest option for students. Cost of the devices is also a concern. In many of the programs where the devices are currently being tested, schools provide the eReader or iPad. Students may already own these devices. The cost required for those that don't own them must be considered when making the move to digital.

Let us know what you think…

What devices do you own, or would you be willing to purchase, to access course textbooks and digital reading materials? If you have had experience with eTextbooks, what is your advice for those making the decisions about textbook availability?