• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


eBooks - Year Two

Greetings, dear reader, and welcome to DigitalTweed. Launched in 1999 as a column in Converge Magazine, DT later appeared in Campus Technology Magazine (2003-06). Following an extended sabbatical, it returns to Inside Higher Ed, where IHE founders and editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman have given me permission to wander the academic landscape. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

August 15, 2010

Greetings, dear reader, and welcome to DigitalTweed. Launched in 1999 as a column in Converge Magazine, DT later appeared in Campus Technology Magazine (2003-06). Following an extended sabbatical, it returns to Inside Higher Ed, where IHE founders and editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman have given me permission to wander the academic landscape. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

Disclosure: these posts will often cite data from The Campus Computing Project (campuscomputing.net). Begun in 1990, Campus Computing is the largest continuing study of the role of eLearning, and information technology in American higher education. Designed as a benchmarking study to aid and inform campus IT planning and policy efforts, Campus Computing affirms the “Deming Dictum” (see W. Edward Deming) as a guiding principle: “In God we trust; all others bring data.” Some thirty firms in the college publishing and information technology industries are corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project. When appropriate – as in today’s commentary on eBooks – DigitalTweed will reference these corporate relationships.

It’s been an interesting 18 months for eBooks in higher education. Like other “ever-arriving” technologies, eBooks have been on the wish list in academe and for consumer markets for several decades. Many observers forget that SONY made its first foray into the consumer eBook market in the early 1990s. My first eBook experience was reading Jurassic Park on a Palm Pilot around 1993.

A year ago the back-to-campus buzz on eBooks focused on a pilot project, involving Amazon and seven colleges and universities, intended to explore issues and opportunities for eBooks and Amazon’s Kindle platform in the campus market. The key words here are pilot project: this was a “journey of discovery” for all involved – Amazon, the participating institutions, and the publishers. The Kindle was designed for the consumer market, not for college students and academic professionals. Consequently, the key issue for the campus projects focused on what the Kindle did well and what must it do better in order to be an effective eBook option for campus users.

Unfortunately for Amazon and the participating campuses, the public reporting often emphasized what the Kindle did not do well. Designed as a consumer product, the Kindle often fell short when it came to the unique needs of academic users:

Additionally, two groups representing the disabled communities, The American Federation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, sued Arizona State University, one of the Kindle consortium campuses, claiming that the pilot project violated federal law because the Kindle was inaccessible to blind students. Concurrent with the ASU lawsuit, the Department of Justice pressed other consortium campuses about their Kindle projects, leading to an agreement with the DOJ that the three campuses – Case Western Reserve University, Pace University, and Reed College – would “not to buy or promote the use of Amazon's Kindle DX or other electronic readers until the devices are fully accessible to the blind.

Although the ASU lawsuit and DOJ investigation involved voluntary pilot projects at colleges and universities, there is little question that real intent was to put pressure on Amazon to add or enhance features for disabled users in the Kindle platform and software application.

As we approach fall the 2010, the eBook buzz on campus focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on the iPad, which offers several eBook reader applications and options, including CourseSmart from a consortium of educational publishers, the iBook reader/store from Apple, and the Kindle from Amazon, among others. This spring a number of institutions, beginning with Seton Hill University (Greenville, PA; enrollment: 2000 students), announced plans for various iPad pilot projects that include, but are not limited to, eBook initiatives.

But the fall 2010 eBook activity in higher education is not just about iPads. For example, last month, Blackboard announced eBook alliances with Barnes and Noble, Follett Higher Education Group, and McGraw Hill Higher Education. As outlined in a July IHE article, Blackboard hopes these alliances will make it “easy for professors and students to assign and access e-textbooks and other digital materials directly through its popular learning-management system.”

Back to the consumer market: both Amazon and Apple publicized interesting numbers about their (consumer) eBook businesses during the summer months. On June 7th, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that Apple had sold more than 2 million iPads the nine weeks. Additionally, iPad owners had downloaded some 5 million books in the 65 days since the iPad began shipping to consumers. According to Apple, as of early June the iBooks store accounted for more than a fifth (22 percent) of all eBooks sales. By the end of June, Apple had sold some 3.27 million iPads.

Unlike Apple, Amazon has yet to release data about the number of Kindles and eBooks sold since the Kindle launched in November 2007. On July 19th Amazon announced that the “Kindle is the #1 bestselling item on Amazon.com for two years running.” Moreover, Amazon reports that the “Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books.... Over the past three months, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 143 Kindle books. Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books.”

Of course even as Amazon and Apple compete in the eBook market, there is good reason to believe that the iPad has contributed to Amazon’s impressive eBook sales numbers. The free Kindle app runs on both iPhones and iPads: no doubt Amazon is selling lots of Kindle books to individuals who downloaded the Kindle app for their iPad.

Yet for all the heated digerati discussion about the competition between iPads vs. Kindles as consumer market eBook platforms, the campus conversation is less about hardware platforms and more about content, reader features, and compelling value for the buyer, particularly the college student. And here it is not clear that eBooks – from any provider, on any platform, or accessed via any eBook reader – provide, at present, a compelling value proposition for most college students. Indeed, for eReaders and digital texts to advance in the campus market – in the college textbook market – publishers and eReader providers will have to address three key challenges: price, features, and format.

Let’s begin with price. One argument often advanced for eBooks in academe is that they will reduce the costs of textbooks for college students. Yet by all accounts the current digital textbook offerings from the major educational publishers are about the same price as used textbooks. My informal wandering of the web seemed to confirm that eTextbooks did not appear to offer significant savings. Checking Amazon, CourseSmart, eFollett, and some other sources, I found that one widely used microeconomics textbook (Mankiw, Principles of Microeconomics, 5th edition) has a suggested list price of $172. Amazon sells a new copy of Mankiw for $153; the Kindle (electronic) edition is $110.38, and the used (print) book from Amazon is $83.49. CourseSmart sells an electronic copy of the same title for $86.49, while the price for the digital edition at Follett’s CafeScribe is $87.84. At Chegg, I can rent a print copy of Mankiw for $50.49. Textbooks.com will sell me a used copy of Mankiw for $110.62 or rent it to me for a semester for $49.49. Amazon promises that regardless of where I purchase my (print) copy of Mankiw, I can resell the book back to Amazon for $67.25 if I do so by December 31st. However there is no market for “used” digital textbooks and most eBook technologies make it almost impossible to transfer an eBook from one user to another.

Based on the numbers above, the best option – the least cost option – would be for me to buy a used copy of Mankiw for about $84 and resell it back to Amazon for $67, for a “net cost” of $17.

Consequently, on the basis of price, eTexts do not (yet) provide significant savings for students because the “true market price” of most printed textbooks is the cost of a used book, not a new one. And, at present, digital texts appear to be priced about same as (or sometimes more than) a used book.

A second critical eBook issue involves features and functions. Although they are “Digital Natives,” today’s college students came of age (and through the K-12 school system) using print. Digital textbooks are, for most, a new experience. Consequently, a critical challenge for those who promote digital texts is to assure students that electronic texts will do no harm: in other words, their grades will not suffer because they are using a new technology. Will the reading skills and study habits – bad and good – developed during their K-12 experiences transfer from print to digital texts? Will the technology tools imbedded in eReaders – digital highlighting and post-it notes, etc. – offer viable analogues to the use of physical highlighters and marginal notes? Understandably, students will expect the same (if not significantly better) annotating features and functions.

The third major challenge for eReaders involves document formats. Not all eReaders “read” all document formats – or “read” them well. Page numbers remain a problem: how to I get my students to the same page of The Odyssey, Huck Finn, the Federalist Papers or a biology or physics textbook if some have print copies and some are accessing content via various eReaders? Additionally, PDF files seem to pose, at present, a special challenge to most eReader applications: students and faculty who are accustomed to using Adobe’s Acrobat software to annotate PDF files on their computers cannot always do so when they read PDF files on an iPad, Kindle, or other eReader platform.

These are big issues. Perhaps the most difficult challenge involves price: the structural costs of developing college textbooks and ancillary instructional resources (web sites, exam questions, etc.) are significant, while the revenue cycle in the current business model is limited to the first “year” a new title arrives on the market. (We’ll explore textbook costs in a future post.)

So short-term, eBooks/eTexts will remain one of those wished for/ever-arriving technologies. Last fall, more than three-fourths (76.3 percent) of the CIOs and senior campus IT officers participating in the annual Campus Computing Survey agreed that “eBook content will be an important source for instructional resources in the next five years.” Two-thirds (66.0 percent) also agreed that “eBook readers (hardware) will be important platforms for instructional content in five years.”

I have no doubt that eBooks will be an increasingly important source of content for students and professors. We’ll get there, but it will be slow, and could well take more than five years to reach “critical mass” – significant numbers of undergraduates using eReaders and digital textbooks. In this context I’m reminded of the definition of implementation offered by a seasoned prof during my first grad school seminar in public policy: “implementation is the movement of cup to lip.” In the conversation about eBooks and academe, the distance from cup to lip is great and involves many challenges.

SIDEBAR: Maureen Dowd’s recent column about college roommates (NY Times, Wednesday, August 10) offers a timely and thoughtful commentary about the appropriate use of technology tools on campus. A dose of difference and dissonance can be a good thing: both are essential components of an effective liberal arts education, one that is not limited to the classroom experience.

Disclosure: Amazon, Apple, Blackboard, Cengage, Follett Higher Education Group, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and SONY are corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project.


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