eText clock is ticking for textbook publishers

eTexts are the future.

Students may favor paper textbooks now but the convenience of the digital form will tip the scales. The UW-Madison’s first pilot through the Internet2 NET+ service indicated the majority of students preferred paper. However our most recent pilot (a year later) suggests that the ability to access multiple textbooks on a laptop or tablet adds a quantum leap of convenience that is shifting student opinion toward digital. Students say the convenience factor is not just lightening their backpack but also enables them to quickly locate a passage or homework problem in class, in study groups and at computer kiosks. Some students who read eTexts on tablets use apps that let them blend notes from their lecture, textbook, or homework problems into one digital document they use for studying. While this currently is a small subset of students, they are the most enthusiastic about digital textbooks.

Curricular changes at universities will make e-content more important.

Blended learning, flipped classrooms, the availability of content in MOOCs all reduce the focus on traditional lectures. Many instructors routinely provide students with a more compact version of the course textbook—the lecture presentation file. Students say that one reason they don’t buy or use textbooks they have purchased (or were given for free in pilots) is that they can get the content they need to succeed by attending lectures and using the presentation slides to study. But in blended and flipped scenarios, where lectures are shifted online or minimized, students may rely more on textbooks to prepare for and to use as resources for activities during class, as well as for assignments and exams.

More granular textbook content is a better fit with many university courses.

The “tome” does not fit with textbook needs in many courses. Instructors often want students to buy and read individual textbook chapters for a class. Instructors create topical, interdisciplinary courses on the fly—too quickly for the textbook market to adapt to their needs with a single textbook. One example is our First-Year Interest Group program (FIGs), which has large enrollments and highly interdisciplinary courses that change every year. These and many upper level interdisciplinary courses represent an entire market missed by textbook publishers right now. That’s surprising since the digital nature of eTexts should make this type of granular offering by textbook publishers much more possible.

Institutional eText contracts will eventually help instructors with textbook selection (and encourage adoption of publisher eTexts).

Textbook selection will always be up to the instructor, however institutional contracts would allow the university to provide instructors with a list of available eTexts (along with pricing) from publishers well in advance of student registration.  A more efficient way for instructors to select textbooks will help universities comply with the HEOA Act (Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008). It will benefit all students—in particular students with print disabilities, who often need several weeks to obtain accessible versions of a textbook. Institutional contracts with publishers should also provide a means for instructors to access and evaluate eTexts and online homework platforms. This will reduce the amount of door-to-door marketing that publishers have to do to make instructors aware of their offerings and price options. It will also reduce disappointment over content, included in current bundles, that instructors weren’t able to evaluate, and didn’t realize are nonrefundable.

Digital textbooks can and should be so much more than paperless facsimiles of traditional textbooks.

Students and instructors see the future of digital textbooks as much more interactive than a paper text could ever be. They envision textbooks that have animations of hard-to-visualize concepts; built-in quizzing, and rollover definitions. ETexts seem like the logical place to provide these enhancements, right inside the narrative context of the textbook where they will have the most impact, versus on a separate website, adaptive learning platform, or CD.

Textbooks must be accessible for all students.

Print textbooks are a barrier to students with many types of disabilities. But digital textbooks have the potential to break down those barriers significantly.  While some human effort will likely always be needed to make graphic and video content accessible, textbooks in the ePUB3 standard would represent a large advance towards the goal of “born accessible” books. The ability to share accessible eTexts among institutions through resources like AccessTexxtNetwork ( and Bookshare ( would allow for great economies of scale that would be a win for everyone—students, textbook publishers, instructors, and universities.  At the University of Wisconsin, we value the role that our colleagues at the National Federation of the Blind and other advocacy groups play in promoting awareness of issues, and advocating for equal access for all.  This is an issue we should all take seriously.

eTexts should be readable and navigable on all devices and available in as many formats as possible.

College is about building character as much as about learning course content. We are experienced at teaching students their responsibilities using digital materials. Copyright protections are preventing students from accessing their textbooks in the most useable forms and this is an unnecessary restriction, considering higher education’s successful track record educating students about digital piracy.

Textbooks cost too much.

Print production costs (and losses to the publisher when a textbook is resold several times) are built into the price of paper textbooks. But neither of these factors is relevant with eTexts. Furthermore, an eText rental is only a license to use the content for a period—the purchaser owns nothing; therefore the inherent value of an eText is considerably lower than that of a print textbook. Students list “low cost of eTexts” as their number one strength. In our pilots, students consistently rated the maximum monetary value of an eText at about 25-33% of the actual publisher’s list price for a new paper version of the textbook.

The real danger to the publishing industry.

I realize that the publishing industry is going through a period of disruptive change, and there is great uncertainty within the industry about the best ways to proceed.  Members of the industry need to understand, however, that we will develop other approaches to digital course content if they fail to listen to the concerns above, and work with higher ed as partners.  The higher education institutions that are part of Internet2 have clearly signaled our interest by working in partnership with the Internet2 NET+ service to take an active leadership role with regard to digital content. On behalf of our students, we are running out of time. My guess is that if the industry does not get its act together within the year, they will see significant additional threats to their business emerge. Innovation is constant, and the best bet is to embrace it. Higher ed is still willing to have dialogue, but the clock is clearly ticking.

— Bruce