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Living through the Evolution of Etextbooks

As a college senior due to graduate from the University of Virginia shortly, I’ve been a firsthand witness to the dawn and slow advancement of etextbooks into higher education. Although the technology necessary for etextbooks has been around for years, only recently have I seen them gain a foothold in the market. Writing this piece three years ago would have been difficult since I wouldn’t have had much to say or many experiences to share. But now, after only a few short years, I have used numerous etextbooks and digital education platforms. I hope that my history with etextbooks will provide a clear picture of the current digital book landscape, viewed from within, rather than from the lofty heights occupied by publishing pundits. You may have gotten the impression that etextbooks are ubiquitous since the media is so optimistic about the rate of change, but as a student in the thick of it, I can say that etextbooks are only now starting to catch on and that the change is happening slower than you may think.

My foray into digital textbooks started in 2007 during my junior year of high school. Teachers and librarians made students use academic databases to do the bulk of our research, as Wikipedia was off-limits. One of the databases my high school subscribed to was Questia, which offers full-length academic ebooks and other scholarly research material via the Web. It was my first time accessing books with a computer, so I was impressed.

Despite a few ebook databases in high school, etextbooks weren’t feasible since not every student had persistent access to a computer. Granted, we had plenty of PCs in school, and my K-12 education was interspersed with various pieces of technology as educators tried to incorporate it into the curriculum. I have fond memories of using Kid Pix on the Mac during elementary school and watching movies on laser discs. But the hardware was neither cheap nor mobile enough for every student to have. In college however, it’s omnipresent. Every student is required or highly encouraged to buy a laptop, and free Wi-Fi is everywhere on campus. Also, by the end of my freshman year there were alternatives to laptops, like the Kindle and iPad.

Sadly, despite the abundance of all this technology, not a single textbook was available electronically for any of my freshman year classes in 2009. My parents told me that things hadn’t changed much since they were in college and gave me tips on how to save money buying used textbooks. Apparently, textbook publishers had failed to embrace the modern world’s technological advancements and were still stuck in the last century. I had a brand new laptop with pervasive access to Wi-Fi, but it was outweighed (literally!) by my big, heavy textbooks.

The first time I used an etextbook was in my second year of college. One physical textbook that I had purchased came with a complimentary electronic version available on the publisher’s Web site. That book had, and still has, a Flash-based interface that doesn’t allow copy and paste, which makes creating personalized study guides a chore. And the book always opens to the cover page, no matter where I previously left off reading. I needed the same textbook again this semester for a different class, but was able to purchase just access to the etextbook version without buying a physical copy. The publisher even sells the electronic version at a slight discount from the physical book. Much to my disappointment, even though more than two years have passed, the interface is exactly the same.

During my last two years of college, I’ve seen a large increase in etextbook offerings. Now, only one of my classes has a textbook that isn’t available in a digital form, and even that book has supplemental material that is available only online.

A year ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a pilot program sponsored by the University of Virginia to try out etextbooks in an integrated fashion. Students in my Database Systems course were given access to an etextbook, free of charge. Authentication was handled by UVA’s course management software and we accessed the book through the Web app for CourseLoad, a third-party etextbook service. CourseLoad is a digital distribution platform that enables you to read and search etextbooks, make highlights and notes, and collaborate with other people. It’s device-independent and is similar to the Kindle Web app.

Everybody in class was enthusiastic to use the etextbook, despite participation being voluntary. We were still given the option to purchase a physical textbook, but as far as I know no one bought it.

This year I’ve been able to purchase etextbooks for the majority of my classes and have been pleased with the experience so far. I now prefer etextbooks to physical textbooks. While getting a free one during the pilot program was great, I have no problem paying for a digital version of a book. The price point of electronic textbooks is still in flux so different retailers have significantly different prices. They tend to be about 10 to 40 percent cheaper, and the discount can even surpass 50 percent. However, since I can’t sell them back to the campus bookstore at the end of the semester, the initial savings can easily be negated.

My favorite feature of etextbooks is the capability to search through the text by just typing a keyword. I no longer have to turn to the index at the back of a book and then flip to the right page. This handy feature saves me a lot of time and makes finding information much easier, especially since the quality of indexes varies between books. Also, keywords can link to their definitions and some ebook platforms will bring up a definition whenever a word is highlighted. I no longer have to fumble around in the back of the textbook for the glossary. With a tap, I can find the definition of any word on the screen.

Another advantage of etextbooks is instant electronic delivery. I didn’t have to make a single trip to my college bookstore this year because I could either rent or buy my physical textbooks from Amazon, or access the etextbook through the Kindle app or other service. I used to buy my textbooks well in advance of the semester to make sure I got one, since the bookstore can run out, but I don’t have to anymore. Heck, I bought my anthropology textbook online via my laptop in the middle of the first class. Digital delivery enables me to hold off and make sure I need to buy the necessary materials. Many students drop a course after a class or two, so not having to return textbooks to the bookstore is a big time saver. And, if you’re skeptical that the professor will even use a particular textbook on the reading list, you can just wait to buy it until it’s needed without worrying that the bookstore will have returned their extra copies.

Digital delivery also facilitates textbook rentals. Through some online retailers, like Amazon, you can rent an etextbook for a specific length of time. Instead of buying and then selling back physical textbooks at the end of the semester for a fraction of the purchase price, the rental just expires. I was able to rent my economics textbook for $65, which was $40 cheaper than buying the Kindle version and $105 cheaper than buying a new paperback copy. In this case, it cost about $0.30 per additional day and there was a 60 day minimum rental period.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find out until after I had spent the money that the rental was incompatible with my Kindle Touch, which isn’t as capable as the Kindle Fire models. But, I was still able to use it in the Kindle app on the Mac and Web, and I didn’t mind not being able to use it on my Kindle Touch. The digital rental was more convenient than renting a physical copy of the book because I didn’t have to ship it back at the end of the semester. Amazon even saved my highlights and notes after the etextbook expired so they’ll be available if I ever download the etextbook again.

Going into UVA’s pilot program, I was aware of many of the advantages of etextbooks, but one that I had little experience with was the sharing and collaboration features. CourseLoad enables the sharing of highlights, notes, and annotations with other students and the instructor. Despite the potential, I didn’t see any notes from other students or the professor. In fact, UVA’s official report on the program even says that the features weren’t widely used and that there was little benefit from having them.

In my opinion, it wasn’t that the tools were necessarily inadequate or hard to use, but that students and teachers have to become accustomed to them and incorporate them in their workflows. When I asked my instructor, Mark Sherriff, Associate Professor of Computer Science, about the collaboration tools afterwards, he said that they would have to interface with his current workflow, which includes a lot of email. Some types of automatic data aggregation and sharing, like the Kindle underlining frequently highlighted passages, will definitely be more widely used since they require no additional work on anyone’s part.

The etextbook pilot also exposed some weaknesses that physical textbooks don’t have. The most prominent of these were technical issues and the need for a constant Internet connection. Although this didn’t happen frequently, whenever the CourseLoad service or the UVA course management system went down, there was no way to access the material. The Kindle app downloads all content, so it’s available offline, and in my opinion is better for the mobile student. Another issue with CourseLoad was that some students complained about having trouble viewing and navigating the text on their devices. The technical problems weren’t a major issue, though, and I would expect them to be ironed out with future iterations of the software.

Of course, the elephant in the etextbook-filled classroom is piracy. When doing a Google search for a textbook, one of the suggested links almost always has “pdf” at the end. BitTorrent is another common way to find copyrighted course material. This is a widespread problem, and while talking to friends from UVA and other universities, many confessed to having not paid for some of their etextbooks. One friend even mentioned that professors have given out free copies of textbook PDFs, so students aren’t the only guilty parties. By limiting etextbooks to a cloud service or some type of proprietary software, publishers could eliminate much of the piracy, but doing so could hurt the user experience if the service has issues or requires an Internet connection.

Finally, one of the most annoying disadvantages of etextbooks is the fragmentation and inconsistency across various platforms. There is no one service for selling and reading them, and each publisher seems to have their own idea of how to do it. Right now, I’m bouncing between Amazon’s Kindle app, PDFs, a proprietary Web app, and physical textbooks. Amazon Kindle’s application is by far my favorite, and it trumps other services because it doesn’t require an Internet connection, is cross-platform, underlines frequently highlighted passages, has convenient reference tools, and offers a decent search feature. However, it too has some problems that lead to friction and frustration in the learning process. For instance, many Kindle books lack page numbers, so I have to pull up a publicly available table of contents online in order to figure out where I should be reading. I also can’t export any highlights, notes, or annotations to another platform, so I’m locked in.

Now that I’m finishing up college and have some broad experience using etextbooks, I can confidently say that I prefer them over physical textbooks. They aren’t even close to being perfect, but since they are digital, they can at least be iterated upon and improved, hopefully quickly. Traditional textbooks have stayed essentially the same for decades, and in a world that is becoming increasingly digital, I don’t see why an antiquated publishing medium should still be the norm. Students should be given the option to purchase physical textbooks, but every textbook should also have an electronic version that is priced fairly. And I’m willing to bet that the etextbooks win out in short order.


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Comments about Living through the Evolution of Etextbooks
(Comments are closed.)

I enjoyed reading this article. I agree, the world is moving much slower than I had hoped to adopting EText as the normal format. I am blind, so, for us, this is even more important. Also, unfortunately, the kindle format seems to be the most widely used. This is unfortunate, because, Amazon as done little to address the accessibility of the kindle reader and even the app that can be used with IOS or Android.
Troy Payne  2013-04-06 12:13
As a geek and a university professor, it's great to read such a thoughtful piece that sheds light on the student's perspective.

When I survey my students, they are more sensitive to price than format. That is, they prefer whatever is cheapest. To date, I have not seen an overwhelming preference for ebooks among my students. This could vary by discipline—computer science students might be more comfortable with ebooks than my criminal justice students.

From my point of view, what matters is the book's content, not format. I choose books based primarily on the quality of content, secondarily on price, and ebook availability is last on my priority list.
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-06 12:55
Thank you. I agree that students are primarily concerned about price and that professors are more concerned with content. Hopefully in the future these two priorities will meet and high-quality, inexpensive ebooks will be available.
Michelle OBrien  2013-04-11 06:36
Great article, indeed. No argument that first and foremost the content has to be solid and vetted to even be considered by faculty, but we believe from there on, allowing students to choose an affordable format, whether it's print or digital, is key. To David's point, "Students should be given the option to purchase physical textbooks, but every textbook should also have an electronic version that is priced fairly," -- we agree. By publishing digital first, it is possible to offer all formats at more affordable prices and let students choose. Again, the content and authorship has to be quality, though. That's what we do at -- would welcome any feedback on this approach to higher ed. textbook & course content.
David Weintraub  2013-04-06 18:31
You know what really is ironic about college ebooks? Barnes and Nobles controls 90% of the college book stores -- those very stores that sell college text books. B&N also has the Nook ebook reader. And, that Nook ebook reader needs its pump primed.

You'd think that B&N would get their publishers to offer ebooks. Sell an ebook for 50% to 75% of the physical book price. Kids will flock to buy them. However, ebooks can't be resold, so there's very little secondary market. Kids save money (initially), publishers make money, and B&N makes money. Even better, millions of college students own Nooks and will buy their ebooks not from Amazon, but from B&N -- even after they leave college.

I can't understand why this hasn't happened.
Michael  2013-04-10 12:30
Just as a matter of fact, B&N doesn't control anything near "90%" of the college bookstores in this country. Follett runs quite a few & many are still institutionally owned & run (many of the latter return all or a portion of their profits to their school's general fund or to support scholarships or other programs).
Michael Watson  2013-04-10 13:07
Great observation.
But as a former "print publishing" guy who has gone digital, I can give you an idea of why it hasn't happened. B&N is wellDigital is still a parallel universe for "bricks and mortar" retail and many publishers. The "Aha" moment is here, but adjusting content creation and pricing models takes time.
Remember, it integrates all elements of the book creation process, concept, authoring, editing, with lots of coding & permissions for links to data tables, videos, experiments, through production right through to distribution.
To be truly platform independent (PDF? not worth the investment) digital resources have to be coded (xtml, CSS) & edited on multiple devices: smartphones, multiple tablets, PC's, full-size monitors and televisions to evaluate the user experience (reflowable text, embedded videos, link functionality).
All expensive & requiring major investment at a time when revenues are cratering. B&N is best-situated with vertical & horizontal integration, but...
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-10 16:03
I can only speak about UVA's bookstore, but here, it's owned and operated by the university.
Robert Katz  2013-04-07 19:22
There are several disadvantages of eTexts vs physical textbooks beyond that etexts are internet, computer or device dependent (i.e. battery or electricity, cable/hotspot dependent).

1) To best preserve the eBook, a standard format (pdf) is needed. Many eTextbook publishers have DRM access, requiring your school credentials to be verified online. When these become obsolete, by graduating or stopping school, your ebook is closed to you.

2) The publishers compel regular edition updates, so that an eBook used in your first year becomes unavailable later because of such updates.

3) The software that displays the ebook gets updated and may not be backwards compatible. Similarly for future devices that are incompatible with older ones.

4) In the future, the eTextbook may be replaced by software that offers course instruction. (e.g. Carnegie Learning Systems' Adaptive Math Practice, where the Algebra "textbook" is in the software and unavailable separately.)
Robert Katz  2013-04-07 19:38
For those wishing to keep the textbook for your after-school future, also buy a physical textbook. The only investment is your time and energy to become familiar with it.

There is a basic distinction between a physical textbook and an eText. The physical textbook is a codex, which lets you flip pages and go non-linearly from page to page in the textbook. No search term is needed. An eTextbook is basically a very wide one page scroll, which you read linearly from left to right. While there are ways to search, bookmark and annotate, you still can only do what you see (or read)" (See Lev Grossman's From Scroll to Screen.

Consequently,, I prefer the more device independent, reliable and durable printed textbooks.
I agree that if you want to keep the textbook as a reference book, then physical books become a much more attractive option. I know that I kept ALL my engineering textbook from my days in school and have used many of them for reference at times in my career.

Having said that, it would be a hard choice due to the weight advantage of eTextbooks. As a lecturer at a University, I get access to eTextbook version of the texts used in the classes I teach (as well as a hard copy). I REALLY like having the digital edition available as then I don't need to lug around a roughly 2 in thick textbook, let along multiple textbooks that a student might need. My iPad is MUCH smaller and lighter than the physical textbook.

The way I see it, it really comes down to how likely you think you might be to want to keep the textbook after the class is done. If you are the type to sell (or rent) them, then eTextbooks become much more appealing. If you keep them, then an ol' physical book might be better.
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-09 09:22
I also agree. The Kindle app will save highlights and notes incase you download it again, but that would also require purchasing it again if it was only rented before. You point about having both a physical textbook and etextbook is also spot one. Having both, although it is the more costly method and somewhat inefficient, is the best for the student.
FWIW, the CourseSmart eTextbook system has some quirks when dealing with highlights, annotations, and bookmarks. I have not fully "played" with those feature on both the iPad and web versions to see if they sync as I mainly use it to highlight possible homework problems. I have encounter an issue when the iPad app threw a hissy fit and I had to get the CourseSmart people to allow me to re-download for offline use to my iPad. That process torched all my notes, highlights, and bookmarks. For me, it was not much of an issue...but could be a major issue for students if they have a lot of notes.
Jeff Hecht  2013-04-09 05:28
One thing I did not see mentioned at all was graphic capabilities. Most science and technology texts have diagrams that are integral to the instruction, and many are in color. Some books come with simulations and models that run on a computer. As an author of technical tutorial books, I wonder how usable students find them in electronic format. What I have seen has not been encouraging.
It will depend on the eTextbook system.
As a lecturer in engineering, I get access to the CourseSmart eTextbook system for the texts used in my classes. It works rather well. The eTextbooks are essentially along the lines of PDF type files (i.e. "static" pages that you can zoom in and out on). Thus, the format of the pages and the figures are exactly the same as in a hard copy of the book. You can either view in a web browser on a Mac or Windows computer and at least with one browser work in an "offline" mode. There is also an iPad app that works pretty well and does include the ability to work offline (i.e. download sections to the iPad). I believe there might be an Android app as well.
I have also used one textbook by way of the Kindle. This is an older version before Amazon got "serious" about eTextbooks. It is all in black and white and does actually work with "traditional" Kindles. Since it is using Kindle paging, it get a bit messy to navigate.
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-09 09:18
Only one of my textbooks has interactive simulations and I'm very pleased with them. You actually have to use them in order to do some of the homework problems. Sometimes it does feel more like a gimmick and that regular text would be sufficient, but the interactive ones can show you how different variables matter.
I think the biggest thing holding them back has been usability.

People will want an easy way to use them both with and without an Internet connection.

Pure web based version that require an Internet connection will be limiting. While there is generally a constantly available WiFi connection on most University campuses, students will not always be studying on campus and thus might not have a WiFi/Internet connection. While I am not a student, I would think this would be a problem for me if I were. So, if the eTextbook system does not support some sort of offline system, I would likely not consider it.

Then there is the issue of pricing. As you noted, students tend to place high importance on low price. So, if there is not a significant price advantage compared to a physical (used in particular) textbook, then they likely will pass on it.

For example, the book I am using right now for a class is about $193 new from Amazon. You can rent it from Amazon for about $55 for a semester. If you want to get it through CourseSmart, it will cost you $98 for 180 days of access. I am not sure how much it will cost used from a local book store, but I assume it would be around $100 +/- $20. When I look at that, I would assume most students would go for the $55 rental (unless the definition of a "semester" means you pay for some extensions) unless they REALLY felt like benefit of the electronic version was worth the extra $50.
Clearly there's some potential for eTextbooks, but the publishers and retailers need to get with the program. The prices and obnoxious DRM issues are offputting to say the least, and will just continue to increase the piracy problem. If they want to combat piracy, the price needs to be reasonable, and the DRM and/or compatibility issues need to be fixed. Until then, piracy seems like it will continue to flourish.
I am hoping that there will be some standardization. I am currently in school and there are some electronic books available. I like them since they don't weigh extra, but then I also have some teachers that prefer physical books so they can refer to page numbers more easily.
It will depend on the eTextbook system. If it uses a Kindle-style, "flowable page" system, then you are correct. If it uses a more "static page" similar to a PDF, then page numbers might work.

FWIW, I tried using a page number on the CourseSmart eTextbook that I have access to on my iPad, and the eTextbook page nominally matched the real page number (I say nominally because I had to enter "CH2-200" to go to page 200 in the eTextbook rather than just entering in "200").
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-09 12:29
Yes, it's always awkward when the professor says "take out your book" and you whip out your laptop
Dorothea Salo  2013-04-10 07:00
Thank you. I'll be recommending this post in the summer course I teach on changes in the publishing industry.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-04-10 07:36
On a mailing list about publishing, someone commented in the context of this article about a system called CourseWork, which watches student behavior and reports on it to the teacher.

On initial thought, things like CourseSmart feel "wrong" to me - if it was a tool that the student was using to help stay on track, that would be great, but to have it being reported to the teacher without the student even knowing seems to be putting the teacher in a dangerous role. At least in higher education (and in my opinion), students have to be self-motivated - college professors shouldn't be telling students that they're not studying enough.
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-10 09:15
I agree. Also, there are many ways to game the system. There's just no way to know if students are actually reading and learning, or if they are just opening up the book. Also, I don't see why students should have their score lowered if they don't highlight key passages. What one student thinks is important might not seem important to another person.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-04-10 09:45
Indeed! If the professor wants students to highlight the "right" passages, then that should be specified up front as a goal of the class (and one that students will immediately collaborate on).
I was not aware of that feature in CourseSmart as I don't use it...and actually could not find any reference to it on the CourseSmart site even when I am logged into my Instructor account.

Even if I could find it, I would not use it. Plus, I don't know if any of my students use the eTextbook option through CourseSmart...I suspect most still do old fashioned "hard copies".
redsteven  2013-04-10 15:29
I use Elsevier's PageBurst (formerly eVolve ebooks) for their books that I own.

And my GOD does that thing suffer from some oh-so-easily-fixable UI problems. For example, I can resize the text... but I CAN'T resize the in-line diagrams and pictures (yes, I can double-click on them to open them in a new window), but the point is, when a single picture takes up >50% of my 15" monitor, that's unacceptable.

And it makes it impossible to quickly skim through a book. And THAT'S the problem that I think a lot of people have with ebooks. They want to quickly flip through a chapter. They don't remember the exact keyword they're searching for... or maybe it's a word that's present 537 times in that chapter, so it's not feasible to do a search. But they just want to flip through the pages and find that spot they remembered they looked at the other day.

With a decent user interface, you could easily do this with eTextBooks. But for some reason, that decent user interface seems hard to come by
Mark D'Antoni  2013-04-11 14:28
David, I really enjoyed reading your article and am gratified to hear that etextbooks are finally making real inroads into the student experience. Knowing publishers, it's surprising you are also seeing some discounts from the print versions. That's great! And I love the idea of "renting" a book for a period of time.

You are correct about smoothing out the wrinkles. Consistent standards across devices, implementing good user interface (I can't believe the Flash thing) and changing existing habits/workflows all need to be worked out. These are all great experiments on the use of digital textbooks for college coursework and I look forward to seeing where this goes in the future. I am also willing to bet the etextbooks win out. Good luck with your graduation. Cheers!
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-11 17:33
Thank you! The discount is nice, but considering you can't sell it back, it can be negated. Also, I've noticed that smaller, more technology oriented publishers, like A Book Apart, offer better deals right now than more traditional publishers.
Can you resell your ebook textbooks?

I was an art major, and my books--new or used--were very expensive. I still have them. They're beautiful. I can't imagine having an ebook art history book that would become obsolete.

I also took advanced classes in chemistry and math, and minored in business. I borrowed some those books from friends, and bought the science books, used. I can see getting a few ebooks for classes where I most likely won't want to keep them.

In the long run, it was much cheaper to buy used books and resell them than to use ebooks. It all depends on your major and how you use and mark up the books. Not being able to resell ebooks makes the ebooks more expensive than physical books, not to mention more likely to be permanently damaged in a heavy rain storm, or when the iPad/ereader falls off the back of my motorcycle.

If the weight of books is an issue, don't carry so many at one time. You don't need them at the same time anyway.
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-12 18:41
Hi Betty,

From what I've seen, you can't resell etextbooks legally. Every student has to buy their own copy, which is essentially a license to the material.
Jon May  2013-04-14 07:47
You might be interested to know that in the UK, Plymouth University won The Guardian's 2013 University Award for Teaching Excellence for an initiative started by the School of Psychology. All Psychology students now get their 23 first and second year textbooks free as eBooks, through VitalSource's Bookshelf platform, and can access them on iOS, Android and PC/Mac devices. Bookmarks and comments within the texts can be shared between users, which academic staff are getting used to as a new teaching technique (I am one).
David Rabinowitz  2013-04-14 08:40
That sounds great! I'm jealous :) I'm really glad to hear that some universities are being successful with introducing etextbooks.