Digital Textbooks Offer Students, Schools Significant Savings

Published January 6, 2012

Teachers in Coon Rapids, Minnesota had all but disposed of their school district’s statistics textbook, constantly replacing its outdated information with their own notes and homework problems. When it came time to purchase new books in 2011, Anoka Hennepin School District let these teachers write their own instead. They put it all online.

“The teachers thought we could do a better job writing our own book that fit our state standards and the needs of our students,” said high school math teacher Michael Engelhaupt, who helped write the digital textbook. Involving technology in teaching also “helped make the class more relevant,” he said.

Anoka Hennepin paid three teachers $10,000 total to create the book, spent $5,000 to make it accessible to students lacking a home computer and Internet connection, and saved $175,000.

“I think the biggest impact [comes with] giving students a book that exactly covers what they need to know,” Engelhaupt said. “Also, the potential for saving school districts tons of money is unbelievable.”

E-Textbooks Spread
Digital publishing has begun to overtake print publishing. In 2011, announced its digital books had outsold hard copies for the first time. The digital revolution that hit the music industry and newspaper in the past decade has found publishing. Electronic textbooks generated approximately $267 million in sales in 2011, a 44 percent increase over 2010. Simbia Information, a publishing research firm, estimates digital textbooks will comprise 11 percent of textbook revenue by 2013.

Online textbooks give teachers more ownership over their lessons, Engelhaupt said. They are also easier to update, making it easier to keep lessons current.

Despite the advantages of digital textbooks, transitioning from print to digital is not happening as fast as it could, said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for Student Public Interest Research Groups.

“Publishers are still making a ton of money on print textbooks, so they are not in a hurry to start undermining that with digital sales,” she said. “But they still know that digital is the future and see a lot of potential for it.”

Complexities of the College Market
College-level textbooks are increasingly expensive, and publishers dominate the market since professors require students to purchase specific textbooks. Cornell and Brown universities have recently announced they have begun transitioning their assigned textbooks to all-digital.

“To fix the problem they need to fundamentally change the structure of the market and allow consumers to have more power.” Allen said.

Currently, she said, publishers have been attempting to retain their monopoly and price inflation by merely transferring print textbooks into “e-textbook” form and requiring students to buy a passcode to use it. The code expires after the class has finished. Allen said true change in textbook sales must first come by raising awareness of high textbook prices amongst the professors assigning the material, and then incorporating more open textbooks into the curriculum.

‘Open Textbooks’ Loosen Monopolies
The difference between e-textbooks and open textbooks comes in the license. Traditional textbooks are copyrighted, all rights reserved. E-publishers lock content in by encryptions that prevent users from sharing the file. Open textbooks allow any member of the public to obtain a copy, replicate, share, and adapt it, somewhat like Wikipedia. Open textbooks are significantly more affordable.

Right now the publishing industry loses a lot of money when students sell their used textbooks. Publishers attempt in part to control this using new editions, bundling books with software, and including one-time-use passcodes to limit used book sales. Allen said a digital world appeals publishers because used books do not exist.

Still 75 percent of students, according to a 2010 survey, would rather use print than digital. This is partly because the digital textbooks available are boring, Allen said, though that’s beginning to change. Most are currently the printed page transferred to a computer screen.

Allowing Personalization, Variety
Though print textbooks are often generic, digitizing textbooks allows for incorporating a greater variety of media and learning formats, said Doug Levin, executive director at the State Educational Technologies Directors Association.

“This isn’t high literature,” he said. “Print textbooks have short passages, they are very colorful, and have a lot of quizzes.”

Digital textbooks are becoming more refined, incorporating better note-taking, application, and interactive tools, Levin said. They can also be translated into different languages, problems can be assigned for different learning levels, and fonts are adjustable for different reading disabilities.

Khan Academy’s free math instruction videos, which Bill Gates called “the start of a revolution,” will soon be packaged into digital textbooks.

Open textbooks help kids learn more efficiently, since the material can be customized for each child instead of having a generic textbook the entire class uses, Levin said.

The Digital Generation Arises
Perhaps a more likely reason for students’ preference toward print is that students grew up with print, and are more familiar with learning from a hard copy.

That may soon change, however, as the digital age has encompassed K-12 through college. The biggest difference between incorporating K-12 digital textbooks and incorporating them into higher education is that in higher education the student, or the consumer, purchases the product, whereas in K-12 education school districts or the state purchase all learning materials. This changes the dynamics of the market.

 “Technology is finally catching up and at a price point that people can afford,” Levin said. “The internet has changed everything, and educational publishing is not immune.”

Image by The Daring Librarian.