Are E-Textbooks Ready for Prime Time?

As students become increasingly dependent on their digital devices, there's every sign that electronic textbooks -- or e-textbooks -- are gaining an ever-stronger foothold in the world of higher learning. While e-textbooks are not new to the academic scene, recent studies suggest that students and teachers are becoming increasingly open to their use.


A new survey commissioned by CourseSmart and conducted by Wakefield Research found that digital usage is almost universal among current students, with 99 percent having at least one digital device and 68 percent using at least three devices each day.

That high rate of digital adoption appears to correlate strongly with a willingness to access academic content electronically. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they prefer to bring a laptop to class instead of a textbook, and 88 percent said they've used a mobile device for last-minute studying. Meanwhile, 79 percent said that digital textbooks, e-readers, tablets and other technology saved them time when studying and learning -- and among those, 64 percent said it saved them at least two hours per day.

Perhaps most significantly, the survey shows e-textbooks are trending upward. E-textbook use was up 16 percent over the 2011 survey, with 79 percent of respondents stating they had used one and 66 percent saying they use one frequently. Seventeen percent of respondents said they believed only electronic texts would be used in 10 years.

Content providers respond

Major content providers are responding to the rise in digital textbooks, bringing products to market that may help fulfill the growing demand for course materials that are more portable, more readily accessible and often less costly than traditional textbooks.

Take for instance Google. The search giant, who has its fingers in just about every pie, announced recently that it would add electronic textbooks to its app store, Google Play. The company said a new category for textbooks would include content culled from the top-five higher education textbook publishers.

Students can access these materials through the Web, or on their Android or iOS devices, with content synching across all platforms. Bookmarking, highlighting and night mode all will figure into the new offerings. Students will be able to either buy or rent the textbooks, according to Ellie Powers, product manager for Google Play, who addressed a media gathering in San Francisco in July.

Publishers move ahead

Textbook publishers are also gearing up to address the digital demand, and with good reason. Physical textbooks can easily be sold as used items, sometimes even multiple times, while publishers collect no revenue unless a book is sold new. This gives publishers a strong incentive to seek out other formats of distribution.

Major education publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education are looking to create online versions of their textbooks, according to Reuters, which reports that half of Pearson's revenue last year came from digital products and services. The company is currently planning a restructuring that would emphasize online content.

While e-textbooks could help publishers stem the bleeding from the used-book trade, they could also give students a much-needed financial reprieve. The U.S. spends over $7 million in textbooks per year, and a move toward e-textbooks would likely cut this number by a considerable margin. Take the widely used textbook "Biology" by Sylvia Mader and Michael Windelspecht, which is published by McGraw-Hill. The e-book costs $120, a considerable savings from the $229 sticker price for a new print textbook.

Schools step up

Meanwhile, universities around the country have begun to experiment with the possibility of incorporating e-textbooks into their academic processes.

Take for instance the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which has launched an initiative to make textbooks available via laptop. Recently a pilot program was expanded to more than 1,500 undergraduates in 40 courses, and the school's e-Text Committee predicts that by 2016, up to 80 percent of UW-Stout's courses will be taught using e-textbooks.

Initiatives like this suggest that universities, like publishers and content providers, are increasingly ready to accommodate students' desire to shift their textbooks onto digital devices.