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Living through the Evolution of Etextbooks

by David Rabinowitz

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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