eTextbooks are as polarizing as ever in higher ed

The eTextbook revolution has been coming for quite some time, but if recent national survey results are any indication, acceptance of nontraditional textbooks isn’t even close to critical mass.

etextbooks-students-collegeThe survey, conducted by and released in July, showed that four in 10 students said they had been assigned an eBook for a college course, meaning non-print books have yet to crack the 50 percent threshold in higher education.

A highlight of the national survey is a look at how college students feel about eTextbooks: 44 percent of respondents said they were “somewhat or very happy” with the user experience, while 39 percent said they were “somewhat or very unhappy” with eBooks as a class resource.

Jeff Cohen, CEO of, said that if eBooks were consistently more affordable than traditional books, national surveys would likely look much different.

“I do think more students would choose that option [if prices were lower],” he said. “Students typically look for the option that has the least expensive upfront cost.”

The survey shows marked progress in the normalizing of eTextbooks as part of the college experience, however.

Only one in 10 college students in 2010 had purchased an electronic book of any kind, and about half of those purchases were for education purposes, according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS) OnCampus Research Division. Responses to the 2010 survey showed that some students were worried that “technical malfunctions” and “accidental deletion of material” would be rife with mass adoption of eBooks.

Advocates for traditional books, like the NACS, pointed to those results as proof that the death of the printed text in higher education had been greatly exaggerated.

The apparent polarization surrounding eTextbooks on college campuses — indicated by the survey and others conducted over the past five years — doesn’t necessarily mean students dislike doing course work on a nontraditional platform.

A 2013 survey conducted by Wakefield Research and digital course materials company CourseSmart asked 500 American college students about their dependence on mobile devices and their opinions on eTextbooks.

(Next page: Interesting survey results)

TheWakefield survey results revealed that most students own digital and mobile devices, and would prefer that content be delivered that way. In fact, more than half of respondents said they would be more likely to complete required reading in time for class if it was available digitally or could be accessed on a mobile device. Eighty-eight percent of students said they have used a mobile device to study for a test at the last minute.

Those results showed “just how much students have embraced mobile devices and digital course materials to enhance their productivity, efficiency and performance, all of which impact students’ educational success and financial prospects in this highly competitive, globally connected world,” said Sean Divine, CEO of CourseSmart.

The mainstreaming of eTextbooks has sometimes been impeded by students’ and educators’ lack of familiarity with the electronic books.

Some schools, including Trine University, have appointed a campus official to oversee the sometimes-rough transition to eTextbooks, helping students and faculty members understand how to best use the nontraditional books and their various features.

“Change is difficult, and we understand that,” said David Wood, Trine’s overseer over the eBook transition. “Students have a very particular way of doing things. … Most of that [hesitation] comes from fear of, ‘What does this mean for me? Am I going to be able to handle the technology.”


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