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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Technology and the e-textbook

There is a good article in this month's Campus Technology magazine on why the e-textbook market lags while the e-book market explodes. The article includes stats from NACS.

The quote by Matt MacInnis of Inkling summarizes a point of view I have tried to convey for a while. He commented: "Present me with a PDF on a screen and I'll take a book any day." This sentiment is further echoed by one of the Campus Technology blogs which points out that we still use many models from the 80's, and questions what is holding us up from making digital course materials an effective reality:

I’m not suggesting that reading a PDF is a more satisfactory experience than reading a textbook. And, as we have reported in the pages of this magazine, academic reading is not the same as reading for pleasure—the electronic readers out there (even the iPad) are still not optimized for reading for learning.

What is holding us up? As my dad would say, we can put a man on the moon,
yet we can’t make an e-reader that students can skim, dog-ear, and notate? Please.
The article attempts, fairly successfully, to explore some of the reasons why the e-textbook market has not yet fully launched, even though the trade book market is transforming quickly. The article predicts, however, that the barriers to a successful e-textbook market are weakening, if only because of some significant changes in competition and consumers are creating different conditions. A great quote from Sean Devine of CourseSmart in the piece captures this pending shift well:
"We've been talking about electronic textbooks for about 15 years as the next big thing," he says. "One thing that's different today is that all the stakeholders -- the publishers, the hardware makers, the software producers, the consumers -- are getting behind the idea. Taht's very different from what we saw when the e-books first emerged in the late '90s. And when you have companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple getting into the game, that starts to break down barriers pretty quickly."

One observation, Sean-- you forgot to mention college stores among the stakeholders and that we are getting behind the idea too. And ironically, this seems to be the piece of the article that is missing, even though it starts off quoting NACS data. One of the barriers to digital is that most of the current initiatives only target the "creme" -- and fail to recognize the diverse complexity of students, accessibility, affordability, purchase mechanisms, faculty influence, and other factors that limit e-textbook adoption. Few groups understand this range of issues as well as the college store.

As to e-textbooks: Yes, we are making progress, and no, the revolution is not quite here yet on the e-textbook side. As the article effectively points out, the right mix of enabling factors are aligning to make e-textbooks successful, and that is more likely to happen within the next few years than being delayed another decade or more.

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