The (Not So) Inevitable Future of Digital Textbooks

Plenty of folks see the move to digital textbooks as "inevitable."  After all, more and more people are buying e-books and e-readers.  Yet college students in particular continue to turn up their noses to digital textbooks.  What assumptions are we making that lead us to think that digital textbooks are what students want, let alone need?

February 2, 2012

Apple's education announcement last month seems to have stoked the fire under those who want to see the move to digital textbooks -- a move that is seen as inevitable, if only because that seems to be the general direction of the rest of the publishing industry. And if Apple's iTextbooks didn't make the future of digital textbooks clear, then the unveiling this week by the FCC and the Department of Education of a Digital Textbook Playbook" should have. The latter is an effort (or, it's a 67-page PDF) designed to help schools make the transition away from print. But is the move to digital textbooks really a done deal?

Of course, both these major announcements dealt with textbooks at the K-12 level, and no doubt textbook procurement there is quite different than at the college level. College students buy their own books, if nothing else.

And they remain incredibly resistant to digital textbooks, as two recent stories in college newspapers attest. In the University Daily Kansan, Kelsea Eckenroth writes:

Many students can’t give up loyalty to the printed book. Lottie Likens, the manager of University Book Shop, says customers have told her that buying e-books makes them feel like they are spending money on nothing. It’s like paying a decent amount of money for a non-tangible object. “You can’t beat having the book in your possession,” Likens says.

Shannon Thompson, a junior from Overland Park, likes having a tangible book to write and take notes in. “There’s something therapeutic about having the book in your hand and turning pages,” she says. “You feel like you are going somewhere when you turn the pages and know how much you have read.”

Alyson Lippert, a senior from Stilwell, usually reads one book every week. She prefers printed books, although she has a Kindle application on her iPad that allows her to download and read e-books. “Reading books on my iPad is convenient when I travel and when I go to class, but I like to have an actual book in my hand,” she says. Lippert has her books displayed on a bookshelf so she can go back and look at her accomplishments.

A recent story in the University of Rochester Campus Times focuses on the continuing problem of price, noting that students are failing to save money buying or renting digital textbooks.

Of course, these reactions aren't new or news.

But nor is it new to assume that those who are exposed to computers and digital content at a young age will be (or become) techno savvy or technophiliacs. (And assume incorrectly, I might add.) For those of us that have been tracking education technology for decades and have been using computers for decades, well, we are old. Also, we're probably guilty of shrugging and saying that "things will be different" once kids who've grown up with computers hit college or hit the workforce (and in the case of higher ed, become professors). But here we are.  And that still hasn't happened.

Students aren't going to "suddenly" want digital textbooks because they grew up reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar on an iPad. There'll need to be more than a Digital Playbook for schools -- both at the K-12 and higher ed level -- in convincing students to "give up loyalty to the printed book."  They're loyal for a reason, and it isn't necessarily luddism.


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