You've probably noticed that tablet computers (e.g., iPad, Galaxy) and eReaders (e.g. Nook, Kindle) are gaining popularity, and may even own one yourself. A study published just this week from the Pew Internet & American Life Project announced that "the number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18% in December to 29% in January." Reading digital books is also on the rise and USA Today reports that "one in five U.S. adults are reading e-books on a variety of devices." But what about eTextbooks? Are they gaining popularity as well?
Last week's launch of the free iBooks2 app from Apple fueled the discussions among educators about how digital materials and interactive textbooks may affect teaching and learning. Several major textbook publishers are already on board, offering their titles for sale through Apple's iBookstore. And the iBooks Author app allows anyone to create an eBook with interactive features and publish it via iBookstore. The Chronicle of Higher Education presents some of the debate about the benefits and challenges of the new Apple products, reminding us that there are a lot of interested parties – students, instructors, institutions, authors, and publishers – with a stake in the decisions being made.
What College Students are Saying
The high cost of textbooks is a common complaint from college students and has been for decades. Electronic textbooks may be available at lower costs, but there are other considerations involved, such as hardware and software necessary to access these formats. Several schools and organizations have recently published research about student use and preferences for technology and course material access.
- InsideHigherEd.com reported the results of a 2011 Student Monitor survey of 1,200 students that found only 5% of students purchased an eTextbook in the previous academic term. Most of these students also reported choosing the digital format because it was a requirement for the course.
- Daytona State College conducted on a two-year pilot study that explored student and faculty use and preferences for four different textbook delivery models, including printed books and eTexts, along with purchasing and renting options. Among the challenges encountered by students: difficulty getting used to the eBook interface, features (i.e. bookmarks and annotation), and navigation tools. Another finding was that "no matter the textbook distribution model under consideration, students overwhelmingly supported choice." Students want to exercise the option to rent or buy, and have options for printed and digital textbooks.
- Indiana University's eTexts Initiative has been collecting and analyzing data from both students and faculty members using electronic textbooks in their courses. This research found that 60% of students preferred digital formats to paper books, and while lower cost was a major incentive, "the ability to read their instructors' annotations and improve sustainability were equally important reasons to adopt e-textbooks." [PDF]
- The 2011 ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology [PDF] found the range of technology currently owned by students includes devices such as laptops (87%), smartphones (55%), and iPads (8%). And almost one-third of students surveyed (31%) wished that their instructors used eBooks or eTextbooks more often.
Strength in Numbers
Colleges and universities are taking steps to support their students' use of eTextbooks through new initiatives, bulk purchasing, and collective negotiations with publishers. An institution, or group of institutions working together, has greater purchasing power than an individual student, especially as the nature of textbook formatting and publishing change. Jed Macosko, eTextbook developer and associate professor of physics at Wake Forest University, observes that "The line between textbooks and software is blurring because we now have everything digital."
Internet2, a non-profit consortium of 221 colleges and universities, recently entered into contracts with McGraw-Hill to provide discounted digital textbooks to their students. This is similar to the method used by institutions to buy and license software to faculty and students. Five members of the consortium are also working together in a pilot program launched this month in which specific courses will use only eTextbooks, which are also accessible through the schools' learning management systems. The overall goal of this approach is to make the texts available to students though a system that is compatible with different computer platforms and devices.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered and problems to be solved before eTextbooks become fully mainstream in college courses. Cost continues to be an issue in instances where buying or renting a used print copy may still be less expensive than buying a digital copy. Electronic books have limitations that print copies don't have, making it more difficult for students to loan their books to others. And there are multiple file formats and platforms that are not universally compatible.
The features of eTextbooks look promising and have the potential to benefit students in multiple ways, from adding convenience and cost savings, to providing enhanced learning experiences through interaction and exchange. While developers, publishers, authors, educators, and students all continue to explore the options and test usability, the discussion and innovation continue.
Have you used an eBook in any of your online courses? If so, let us know what you think – tell us more about your experiences with the digital format and your recommendations for other students.
Image credit: Johan Larsson, Flickr, CC-BY