E-textbooks: the state of play

As the new school year begins there has been lots of reporting about E-textbooks, and the welter of stories offers an opportunity to assess the overall state of play.

This story from Inside Higher Ed outlines some of the “next steps” for E-texts, as well as the “remaining obstacles,” which are substantial. The article focuses most of its attention on two initiatives – a highly speculative report that Amazon wants to introduce E-texts for its Kindle e-book reader, and a description of the progress being made by CourseSmart in partnering with higher education. It is worth looking at these two projects, along with some other business models for e-texts, in light of some recently articulated needs and concerns.

A recent study done by a coalition of student groups expresses some doubts about digital textbooks that are worth considering as we look at different possible business models. The report raises three potential problems with digital versions: their alleged failure to reduce costs, limitations on how much of an e-text a student is allowed to print, and the short duration of access provided by some licensing arrangements. These latter two concerns, obviously, support the contention that print textbooks are still serving student needs better than e-texts, especially if the digital versions are nor significantly less expensive. To these concerns we might add one more – students like to be able to highlight and annotate textbooks, and digital versions that do not support this activity will be disfavored.

So how do the different business models fare in addressing these concerns?

One model is simply the distribution of electronic versions of traditional textbooks by traditional publishers. This seems like the least promising of the models, since it likely solves none of the issues raised by the student groups. It is interesting that the representative of traditional publishers quoted in the Inside higher Ed story made no reference at all to cost concerns but stressed the potential for e-texts to shut down the market for used textbooks. Unsurprisingly, the focus here is on preventing competition and protecting income, not serving the needs of the student-consumers.

CourseSmart offers a business model that is very little different from that the traditional publishers might undertake themselves. There is some dispute about the issue of cost, however, with CourseSmart arguing not only that its digital versions of traditional textbooks are significantly cheaper, but that they remain so even when the income that students might usually expect by reselling their print texts is taken into account. It remains the case that that lower payment only purchases temporary access for the students and a restricted ability to print. Nevertheless, CourseSmart has been successful in arranging partnerships with San Diego State University and the state university system in Ohio, so it will be worth watching to see how those experiments develop, particularly in regard to student usage and satisfaction.

Amazon’s Kindle is yet another possibility for distributing e-texts. We know very little about how such texts would be priced or what features they would have, but we do know that the desire of students to be able to print would not be fulfilled. This is an important issue for students, apparently, since the student report on e-texts found that 60% of students surveyed would be willing to pay for a low-cost print copy of a textbook even if a free digital version was available to them.

This latter fact is precisely what Flat World Publishing is counting on with their plan to make free digital textbooks available and also sell print-on-demand copies to those who want a paper version. As I described this model a few weeks ago, Flat World is hoping to show that over the long-term, print on demand can prove a sustainable business model. Since this accords better with the expressed needs of student users than any of the above models, they might just be right.

The last model for distributing digital textbooks, one often overlooked in the debates (although endorsed by the student report mentioned above) but given some attention in this article from the LA Times, is open-access. Frustrated faculty members are increasingly considering creating digital textbooks that they will distribute for free. Supporting such work, with grants of up to $50,000, is another part of the initiative undertaken by the university system in Ohio. Ohio has long been a leader in supporting libraries in higher education, and this support for open access textbook offers a new avenue for leadership. The real “costs” we should be considering when we discuss e-texts ainclude reasonable support for the work of creating such resources, as well as credit for the scholarly product of that work when tenure reviews come around. So much of the expense of textbooks comes from the profit claimed by the “middlemen” who distribute them that real efforts to reduce the cost of education must focus on ways to encourage in-house creation of digital texts (which is little different from how textbooks have always been written) and to distribute them directly to students, as the Internet now makes possible.

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