The debate continues to rage over print versus eBook, but the future is fairly clear

eBook-etextbook-studentsNumerous reports by various vendors continue to confuse the public: Students hate eBooks; students love eBooks! Some campuses have spearheaded the eTextbook initiative, while some say the technology isn’t there yet. It may seem like a storm best waited out, but, just like with most disruptive technology, that’s incorrect: eBooks are coming, and eTextbooks are the future.

There are two major reasons why eTextbooks on campuses are getting a shady rep: 1) Confusion over the potential of the technology; and 2) The feeling that there’s nothing that can be done at the moment to help implement a technology that’s not perfect.

In terms of the confusion aspect, let’s be clear: eBooks are not laser discs. eBooks are the digital technology that can be used on any device (laptop, computer, phone, tablet, eReader). Saying that eBooks will never take off is like saying long live the tape cassette. But one fact is clear: printed texts are video rental stores, and one day (it may take some decades) those doors will shutter.

Another barrier to adoption is not students, as some may think. Instead, it’s campus administration that’s willing to wait things out until more functionality is available, not knowing that there are practical steps that can be taken now to future-proof the campus for the eventual move to all-eTextbooks, reducing costs for students in the process.

(Next page: Pros and cons)

Grossmont College does a particularly great job of charting the basic pros and cons associated with printed books versus eBooks:


Grossmont  also notes that it’s mainly cost that’s pushing students to eTextbooks, since, as the College Board recently reported, the average college student typically spends $1,200 a year of course textbooks.

And while there are many websites for helping students find less expensive printed books, like Campus Books, Chegg, and Cheap Textbooks, the price of an eTextbook can be anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent cheaper.

But is a 10 percent discount enough?

According to an Internet2 report in 2012,  students reported that eBooks were not quite there yet in terms of usability, visual presentation and navigation tools. Based on results from a pilot program, students reported problems with readability, complained of eyestrain, and said the eBooks were not fully compatible with all mobile devices. They also noted that navigation features meant to enhance learning, like zoom, highlighting and annotation, don’t function well.

But that was two years ago…has anything changed?

For starters, the price of tablets and iPads, as well as eReaders has dropped, making initial investments in devices more affordable.

Also, the functionality of both eReaders [think: Kindle Fire] and eTextbooks have improved. In a recent Daily Beast report, a shift is occurring in more and more students using devices with ease as K-12 curriculum and family households begin to further implement the technology.

Mirroring this shift, a recent survey  by the Pearson Foundation found that 63 percent of college students and 69 percent of high school students believe that traditional textbooks will be phased out in the next five years. Slightly more than half of college students also said they preferred reading digital textbooks over printed ones for class.

“Instead of carrying around a bunch of books, you have one device with everything on it,” said Clayton Brown, a 23-year-old student currently taking biology classes at Liberty University in Va. “It’s just much more efficient.”

“If his professor asks students to follow along in the textbook, he taps his iPad, opens a digital copy and quickly lands at the right place without thumbing through any pages,” writes the the Daily Beast. “He also uses the digital textbook’s added tools like flash cards and an online journal that keeps track of the material he’s highlighted.”

And prices are also continuing to drop: Instead of more than $200 for a used textbook at the campus bookstore, Brown paid $80 for his digital copy from Kno, an education software start-up.

There are also steps that college administration and faculty can take to ease successful implementation of eBooks, with the first step being: know how to use them.

(Next page: Steps to take for implementation)

Step 1: Train faculty; make sure they use the tech.

According to an analysis by MindShift of Internet2’s report, one of the main reasons students did not heartily adopt eTextbooks was because faculty didn’t make use of the myriad functionalities. Chegg also confirms this fact, and reveals in a recent survey that, “can’t use during open book tests”, “professor won’t allow it”, and “some teachers ban computers in class,” are some of the main reasons why students don’t use eTextbooks.

“The functions that make eBooks more attractive to students than print books weren’t being fully maximized by faculty,” wrote MindShift. “Features like annotating texts, collaboration tools and the ability to share notes with other students weren’t being used or modeled by the professors. And if educators used the eBooks like a print textbook, that’s what students did as well.”

Faculty agreed that they did not often use the features available and wanted further training.

Step 2. Let faculty know eBooks can also mean self-publishing.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Anne Marie Knott, a professor of strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, said that “Faculty should be all over digital textbooks!”

Going through publishers, Knott said faculty on average make 15 percent of wholesale (which is 75 percent of retail), so for a $100 book they would make $11.25. If they self-publish, they can get 75 percent of retail ($75).

The Washington University professor also explained that publishers, while keeping a much larger share of the revenue, don’t necessarily do a better job of designing, editing and marketing their books. (Knott’s reasoning can be found in the full article.)

“My guess is faculty will catch on, the way musicians did. The advantage we have over musicians is we actually know our customers!—we hang out with them at conferences.” Knott wrote.

Step 3: Make buying the eBook mandatory for all.

According to Tom Malek, vice president of Learning Solutions for McGraw-Hill Higher Education in a correspondence with Forbes, making eTextbook purchase mandatory for all students in a course lowers the cost drastically.

According to Chegg’s survey, 38 percent of students “wait to buy their books until they know they need them,” which increases to 45 percent for seniors.

“What we’ve recently found is that by working with schools to ensure 100 percent class participation in an eBook purchase – that is, making sure that all students in a particular course buy the book selected by the professor or school for that course – publishers can afford to offer eBooks at a dramatic discount.”

Under this model, explained Malek, students enrolled in participating classes are automatically billed for the eBooks through their bursar accounts; however, to make sure that only students who stick with a course are charged for the eBook, billing is not applied until after the add/drop period ends. McGraw-Hill has developed pilots using this model with schools like the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, the Indiana University and many others.

According to Malek, both students and faculty are happy with the arrangement, thanks to lower costs for students, and faculty ease at knowing every student has access to materials.

Step 4: Consider partnering with a publisher.

By encouraging your campus bookstore to partner with an educational publisher, colleges and publishers are often able to facilitate the type of bulk eBook purchase that can lower prices for students, said Malek.

Step 5: Kill two birds…

By incorporating assessment and other advanced tools, like adaptive technology (which can integrate directly with eBooks), more and more colleges and universities are insisting that they be included in any large-scale purchasing deal, revealed Malek.

The insistence is plausible, since eBooks are delivered through online platforms that house all of the course materials that a student needs for class (syllabus, assignments, grades, study tools). Effectiveness studies from McGraw-Hill have shown that these programs tend to increase student performance across a number of areas, including grades, test scores and readiness for class.

“The ability of education companies to offer these technologies, which help professors personalize the learning experience and drive student achievement, along with eBooks at a price that’s still affordable to students, is another critical part of this new model,” wrote Malek.

Add your opinion to the discussion.