Higher education: E-Textbook's Fast Growth

As a graduate student at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ, Dan Kerrigan had extensive experience with e-textbooks. Nearly all of his textbooks were in PDF format. Kerrigan, an assistant fire marshal for the East Whiteland Township, PA, Fire...


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Another important portable e-book device is the Amazon Kindle. Kindle Fire readers use proprietary file formats that differ from Apple and myriad other portable devices and the dozens of file formats that exist. For example, the original Amazon Kindle can display plain-text files, but not PDFs. The Amazon Kindle Fire reader accepts plain-text, PDF, ePub and HTML formats. Some industry analysts lament the variety of platforms and – at times – non-interchangeable file formats, saying a single file format for all reader platforms is necessary for universal acceptance of the e-textbooks. Industry insiders say a new operating system from Microsoft, Windows 8, could become another major player to influence tablet proliferation and e-textbook market growth.

User experiences

Regardless of technical issues, a true measure of e-textbook use is in the eyes of the beholder – in this case the user. In Bob Jaffin’s experience, they are the subject of admiration and scorn by students and instructors. Jaffin, an instructor at American Public University System (which consists of online institutions American Military University and American Public University) and curriculum designer in emergency management at Boston University School of Medicine, said he would be hard pressed to find a student who is totally happy with e-textbooks. And he believes electronic texts will never totally replace the printed page, especially for reference works.

“In two courses that I just completed, one consistent comment was that students said e-books and electronic resources are great, but nothing replaces being able to pick up the book and flip through the pages to find what they’re looking for,” Jaffin said. “I think the key in the value of the textbooks is whether it’s a reference book that students would use more than once. If professionals once had 60 books on their desks, then e-textbooks should be able to reduce that to 10. The market for hard-copy books might reduce, but I think the larger challenges for publishers is to do something closer to custom publishing…in which specific chapters are collected from different sources.”

Jaffin sees the great quantity of electronic materials available today a clutter on the roadmap to greater intellectualism.

“I think we would be better off if people knew how to pick up a book and knew how to read and think effectively,” he said. “What I don’t like to see with the total use of online environment is that students tend to not understand the quality of the information they’re finding. Just because people can find something online with three keystrokes doesn’t mean it has any value. What’s happened is that the tool is becoming more important than the process. We are taking away the cognitive skills that are critical to professionals – first responders – who need to find the correct answer fast.”

Jaffin added, “I don’t have a problem with electronic versions. However, my key resources are physically within arm’s reach for me. I can’t imagine not going to hard copy. Theoretically, it’s easier for me to look in the book than to spend the time electronically to find what I’m looking for.”

What’s driving

e-book adoption?

Kerrigan said he finds a huge advantage with e-textbooks in the fire service.

“With a lot of students who are firefighters, being able to do some of their schoolwork while on duty is important to them. E-textbooks make this especially convenient,” he said. “Yet I’m one of those learners who like to have a textbook in his hands to make it easier to reference. And I like to build a library so that I can have material that I can pull off the shelf and can rapidly find the information I need. As a graduate student, most of my books were e-books. I found that I was spreading them out and making binders so that I actually had a textbook at the end. And for me trying to read a book in PDF format I have a hard time reading through it.”

Kerrigan believes at least some printed titles are far from extinction, yet displacement of print titles is occurring. E-textbooks had a rocketing growth rate of 44.3% to reach $267.3 million in 2011. This is compared with $185.3 million in sales for 2010, according to Simba Information, a market forecasting firm that specializes in media. Simba reports that the continued proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices – including smartphones and tablets – combined with the richer functionality of digital course materials and the promise to dramatically improve learning outcomes will be a significant driver of e-textbook adoption.