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 Department, liked that e-textbooks are portable, built into the cost of the course and easy to access. But he had reservations when it came to easily finding specific passages and the inability to build a bookshelf-based library.

Now, as an adjunct instructor at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA, Kerrigan incorporates e-textbooks in courses he teaches in fire science and public policy. He finds his students mirror his undergraduate impressions of this emerging technology. Based on growing prominence and publisher support, e-textbooks are here to stay, but will they make the printed page obsolete? The jury is still out.

The e-book movement probably started with Project Gutenberg. Not the Gutenberg press and movable type from the 1440s, but the ambitious project begun in 1971 by Michael Stern Hart when he invented the e-book. Project Gutenberg, a volunteer initiative to digitize cultural works, has more than 38,000 documents in its collection in a variety of digital formats with titles ranging from the Declaration of Independence to Alice in Wonderland. With the birth of this technology, which offers portability, low production costs and rapid updating, there is little doubt higher education would gravitate to digital textbooks.

In 1991, the digital textbook was on the verge of a breakthrough when John Warnock, Adobe Systems cofounder, described a system called Camelot that two years later became today’s ubiquitous PDF file. Its capability to be used independent of an operating system, and its open standard for document exchange, gave its facility to represent text and graphics to a multitude of users and devices, an obvious format for e-textbooks.

Student learning

Not only are lower production, storage and shipping costs driving e-textbook development, but student familiarity with the digital age is accelerating this method of textbook delivery. Consider a recent study conducted by OmniUpdate, College Week Live and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA) of 2,300 college-bound students. It found 52% had viewed a school’s website on a mobile device, mostly smartphones. The realization of what writer Mark Prensky a decade ago called “digital natives” – those who from early childhood had the use of video games, cell phones and computers – are a staple at colleges today. As he posits, this group processes information differently than traditional book and chalkboard students – or “digital immigrants.”

Megan Garber, a staff writer at The Atlantic, reported on a recent study concerning the cognitive future of the millennial generation based on surveys of more than 1,000 thought leaders. The survey asked respondents to consider how the Internet and its related environment are changing children’s cognitive capabilities. The survey revealed that many believe this generation’s brain processes are changing, a term the science community calls neuroplasticity.

Multitasking is a way of life. And today’s hyperconnectivity may be resulting in this generation’s lack of patience and concentration. As many casual observers have noted, the “always on” atmosphere has produced in this generation a culture of instant gratification and high expectation. The study’s authors note that beyond these findings, the education system must be changed dramatically to align with these new realities in student learning.

Cost considerations

The University of Cincinnati recently announced plans to let as many as 5,000 students participating in an introductory psychology course access textbooks online for free. They will also be able to purchase a suite of electronic versions of the textbook, which are compatible with a variety of mobile devices, for $35.

Nature Publishing Group recently launched a biology e-book, Principles of Biology, which it says will be constantly updated to include the latest scientific information. It contains interactive elements, much as what Apple has incorporated into its latest software and book publishing apps, which are based on e-pub3. The price of this textbook, according to company sources, will be $49.

CourseSmart, a privately held company in California, provides e-book versions of some 40,000 North American higher education textbooks, including fire and EMS. It was founded in 2007 by publishers including Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group and John Wiley & Sons. The company has apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices that let users rent its e-books from any computer or web-enabled device.

“The student and faculty response has been great as evidenced by Course-Smart’s more than 2.5 million users,” said Gabrielle Zucker, a CourseSmart spokesperson. “In 2011, an ECAR EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research student technology study (National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology) found that 57% of respondents indicated they use e-books or e-textbooks in some extent and roughly one-third wish more of their instructors would use e-textbooks, noting that ‘e-books are cheaper than regular hardbound textbooks, easier to carry around and more accessible all the time.’ We are continually adding new titles and editions to our catalog that includes content from 33 publishers and more than 24,000 titles.”

Zucker added, “CourseSmart provides guaranteed, upfront savings of up to 60% when compared to print textbooks and allows students to access their e-textbooks anytime, anywhere via any computer or web-enabled device. Students are also able to print as many pages as they would like and particularly enjoy utilizing features such as bookmarking, note taking within the text (the digital equivalent of writing in the margins), highlighting, zooming in on charts or graphs and searching by keyword. Adoption of e-textbooks is growing rapidly and we expect this to continue.”

Apple’s push for e-textbook delivery

What Apple did to the music business, with its digital, portable and innovative devices and applications, signals what some believe the company has in store for publishing. Earlier this year, Apple announced iBooks2 for iPad, which offers users an app with the ability to interact with e-textbook animations, diagrams, photos and videos. According to Apple, textbook heavyweights such as Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson “will deliver educational titles on the iBook store with most priced at $14.99 or less, and with the new iBooks author, a free authoring tool available…(Authors using) a Mac can create stunning iBooks textbooks.”

The move by Apple, supported by traditional textbook publishers, is designed to promote the company’s iPad product, which at an estimated 1.5 million already being used in education is having little trouble on its own finding a niche.

“Education is deep and Apple’s DNA and iPad may be our most exciting education project yet…iPad is rapidly becoming adopted by schools across the U.S. and around the world,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing. “Now with iBooks2 for iPad, students have a more dynamic, engaging interactive way to read and learn, using the device they already love.”

However, some critics decry Apple’s restriction of using entire iBook content on different devices and operating systems. Only when content is used through Apple’s iTunes store is its complete interactivity possible. This is a move some say will limit the development and widespread use of the e-textbook software.


Changing electronic

publishing language

At the heart of Apple’s iBooks app is ePub, the de facto e-book formatting language. EPub is a free and open e-book standard offered through the International Digital Publishing Forum. EPub is used by Apple, Google and others in the digital publishing business. With the recent announcement of ePub3, text formatting became much more powerful and potentially a game-changer for e-textbooks. The improved language allows the addition of audio, video and interactivity that will greatly change the e-book experience for users.

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.

“The digital transformation has infused new dynamism in the college publishing industry in the past year,” said Kathy Mickey, senior analyst/managing editor of Simba’s Education Group. “In the throes of a struggling economy, new devices and new formats have roiled the pot. Students, instructors and publishers are experimenting with the way textbooks and other instructional materials are created, marketed, distributed and used.” n