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e-Textbooks: Feasible or Futile?

posted by Mark on January 23rd, 2009

e-Textbooks: Feasible or Futile?As textbook prices continue to climb — by some estimates, at a rate twice that of inflation — e-textbooks are increasingly looked at as a less expensive option. After all, electronic textbooks accessible via computers save money on printing and distribution costs, thus lowering the end price paid by students. At least, theoretically.

A 2008 study by the Affordable Textbooks Campaign, however, found that when taking into consideration the fact that students can sell back used textbooks at the end of the semester (effectively renting the books) — something they can’t do with e-textbooks — they often don’t save any money buying the electronic versions. The e-textbooks option is even more expensive if students decide to print the books, a distinct possibility given the study’s finding that 75% of students prefer a hardcopy textbook over a digital one.

The major e-book publishers aren’t making things easy for students, according to the study. They not only price the digital books too high, but through digital rights management (DRM), they also limit printing and access options. Most e-textbooks from major publishers, in fact, expire after 180 days, making them more rentals than purchases.

So, why would anyone want an e-textbook? Well, there are a number of potential advantages over hardcopy books:

  • Cost. Theoretically, at least, they should cost significantly less for students to buy.
  • Convenience. Having all of your textbooks loaded onto a laptop computer makes them easier to carry and locate when needed.
  • Searchability. E-textbooks are easily searchable using the computer’s search function, making research more efficient.
  • Copy-and-paste. E-books also enjoy the benefit of the computer’s copy-and-past functionality, easing efforts to conduct research and cite source material.
  • Speech option. For some students, it could be possible to run the e-book through a speech program that converts it into an audio file.

The solution to rising book prices that the Affordable Textbooks Campaign suggests is “open” textbooks. Open educational resources (OER) are online digital learning materials that are available free for anyone to download and print. The movement towards OER has slowly been gaining ground over the past few years, with groups like the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) gathering almost 100 community colleges in support of the initiative, plus thousands of college professors either pledging their support for open texts or donating their own open books for use. Open textbooks are popular with teachers in part because of the added benefits of quick and easy editing (making the books more up-to-date than printed texts) and the ability to add audio and video elements to web-based books.

Still, the headway made by the open textbook initiative is minuscule in the world of textbook publishing. Although some open books are written and maintained by their users, they still number only in the hundreds, whereas, the major retailer of e-textbooks from major publishers, offers over 5,000 books. Open textbooks also suffer from the stigma of perception — lacking the polished look of major publications and not being seen as “official,” which implies a level of inaccuracy or incompleteness.

In order to succeed in revolutionizing the textbook market, open resources (and to a lesser extent, e-textbooks in general) must gather additional support from publishers, teachers and students alike. Presumably, OER advocates foresee a business model similar to that used for open-source software — that is, offering products for free but charging for supporting products and services. Can it work? Only time will tell.

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