Are textbooks history in the digital era?

Books inside a laptop represent the concept of digital textbooks.


Kai Ryssdal: There is an unwelcome visitor in a lot of classrooms this fall. That would be the U.S. economy. States are cutting education spending to fill their budget holes. And in turn schools are cutting programs, bumping up class sizes, doing pretty much anything they can to cut costs.

One option that has started to get some attention is digital textbooks. They can go beyond just what is printed on the page. And they are a whole lot cheaper than those traditional hard-bound door stops that students have been carrying around for decades now. Marketplace's Stacey Vanek-Smith reports.

BRIAN EVANS: We went through four of the five fundamental economic concepts, so let's now do the final concept marginal analysis.

STACEY VANEK-SMITH: Brian Evans is an economics professor at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Today he's teaching his students cost-benefit analysis, and he's taking a chapter from real life: his decision to use digital textbooks in his class this year.

EVANS: Let's think for a minute about the decision to go from a traditional textbook to the online book that we're using. Because I was raised you've got to get as much as you can for your dollar.

Schools have been running some numbers of their own. Online textbooks usually cost about $20 per student. Compare that to $100-plus for a traditional textbook. Right now digital books are only about 2 percent of the textbook market. But they're catching on fast at universities and now states are pushing them as a way for public schools to cut costs.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Starting this fall with high school math and science, we will be the first state in the nation to provide schools with a state-approved list of digital textbooks.

That would be California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This summer, California launched a digital textbook initiative the governor says could save schools up to $400 million a year. Schools could negotiate prices. And kids who don't have computers could use paper printouts provided by teachers. Textbooks are a $7 billion business in the U.S. So you might think all this talk of digital books would have publishers coming unglued.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Jeff Young says not quite.

JEFF YOUNG: The publishers do stand to gain here. Publishers have been trying since even the CD-ROM Era to do some sort of version of their electronic textbooks.

Online books are a lot cheaper to produce than textbooks -- no glossy paper or pricey color pictures. So most of the money coming in from online books is profit. And the text itself is just the beginning. Students can buy supplements, like an audio version, a hard copy, study guides on DVD.

Sanford Forte is with Flatworld Knowledge, which specializes in digital textbooks.

SANFORD FORTE: We thought that if we would offer the students options at affordable prices, that they would buy something and in fact the vast majority of students are buying something from us.

More than half of the students in Professor Brian Evans's economics class bought a hard copy of the textbook from the online publisher to use with the digital version. Evans says his students found online books a little clunky. Graphics sometimes don't show up, it can be hard to jump from page to page, and you can't take notes in the margin. Students have also complained it gets tiring to read off of a computer screen.

EVANS: So I don't think it will ever replace the textbook totally, but I certainly think it's going to grow. I think that they're going to be able to start adding in videos or links within the textbook. They'll get more and more interactive and just get better and better.

Publishers are busy making improvements. So students can highlight text, take notes in the margin online and share those notes with friends. The books will also offer practice tests that can instantly identify a student's trouble spots and help them learn. And teachers can modify the books to fit their lesson plans.

EVANS: So what do you think? Is it worth it? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

That's in the eye of the reader, but as the technology improves, more budget-conscious schools and companies are starting to think outside of the book.

In Los Angeles, I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.
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Funny how people always blame the evil publishing companies and yet nobody has any problem with the bookstores and national book resellers making huge profits on each and every use of used books.

My concern is for high students and the extremely heavy bookbags they haul on their backs daily. Downloaded textbooks could really help with this problem. As a parent, I would buy a Kindle type device if the digital textbooks were available.

There are plenty of resources out there related to digital textbooks and textbook affordability.

• Educause has a brief resource about eBooks in education: 7 Things You Should Know About E-books (download PDF from Educause web site:
• The Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs has an informational site http://www.maketextbooksaffordable.org/textbooks.asp?id2=14226

Stephanie Gibson's point about digital textbooks being rentals is true in publisher-created cases. It is a subscription model. At 40% the cost of the paper version, though, students may pay less than buying a book and selling it back. (NOTE: This figure is based solely on the cost of a publisher-created digital textbook series called WileyPlus, which we are piloting here at San Francisco State University.)

However, not all digital textbooks are created by publishers. Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org) allows authors to publish their works and distribute as they see fit. The concept of open educational resources (OERs) includes a category for open textbooks. Examples include both non-profit and for-profit organizations:

• The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources lists free copyrighted textbooks: http://oerconsortium.org/copyrighted-digital-textbooks/
• Flatworld (http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/) is an open textbook publishing company that allows instructors to build customized textbooks that students use for free.

The California State University (CSU) system created a Textbook Affordability Task Force, which drafted a report on the topic (http://www.calstate.edu/ats/textbook_affordability/documents/Textbook_Ta...). The CSU Digital Marketplace is being created to include eBooks and digital textbooks created by both instructors and publishers alike.

• The CSU Chancellor's Office has linked the Digital Marketplace in part to affordable textbooks. (http://www.calstate.edu/pa/news/2007/textbook.shtml)
• The US Department of Education has also addressed this issue with its report, Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable. (http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/acsfa/turnthepage.pdf)

In the cost-benefit analysis, there are some clear benefits to eBooks. The digital textbooks can address additional learning preferences and learning needs. For example, some students engage in "just-in-time learning" where they take practice quizzes and then use the quiz feedback links to jump to the content they need to know. More research needs to be done regarding the educational effectiveness of this approach, but it is how some students work. Digital textbooks can also be searched and, as Evans in the article states, they can employ additional media types. Regarding learning needs, most digital textbooks are in XML format, so they act as accessible versions for students with disabilities, saving thousands of dollars on costs of recreating the books in alternate media formats (Braille, recorded on tape, etc.). The additional media (videos, charts, activities) often need to be made accessible, but having the text accessible through any screen reader or browser is a great start.

Finally, the conversation is evolving rapidly and should include the student perspective. Some students want digital textbooks. I am teaching an online class for 100+ students called "How 2 Lrn w ur iPod" this semester at SF State. I had the students watch the popular YouTube video called "A Vision of Students Today" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o). The most common comment in the discussion forum was that, like a student in the video, they have had to buy textbooks that they were never required to open. This is partly a faculty development issue. The students also stated that having textbooks in a digital format would allow them to have all of their books available to them anywhere they had their laptop or mobile device, making it easier for them overall.

In her statement,"Online books are a lot cheaper to produce than textbooks -- no glossy paper or pricey color pictures. So most of the money coming in from online books is profit," the reporter perpetuates a misconception that publishing online is practically free for publishers. Paper, printing, and binding is not as expensive as the reporter implies--only a few dollars per book--and that cost savings is passed on to the user in the reduced price of the digital book. Many significant costs don't change for the publisher, for example, the royalties paid to the author and the rights for all those color photos. Other costs may be even higher for online textbooks, for example running the servers that host the books and providing technical support for users. As electronic textbooks become more interactive, with embedded links, videos and animations, those features will cost a lot to develop as well. Please run a story about the economics of digital textbooks so listeners can get the whole picture.

A great thing about digital texts: they don't weigh anything! After picking up my high school daughter's back pack this morning, I decided to weigh it. 22 lb! She weighs 103 lb., so her back pack is breaking the wt rule of under 10% of her body wt. Also, digital texts never get forgotten in the locker over the weekend. The not-so-good side of the digital text-- and do we mean a text on a CD/DVD or one available online or both?-- is that a student on the go,eg the bus, car(going to soccer practice, etc), may have less access to the digital text, especially if the younger student doesn't have a laptop with a digital access plan ($$). My son, the college student, found that some of his digital textbooks came with only a one-year contract, meaning that if he wants to subsequently refer to the book, he'd have to pay another $100 fee.

I was disappointed that the article about digital textbooks didn't cover the latest developments in the Kindle test market products to colleges and where the umpteen patents that Apple has applied for are going to be applied ("Kindle Killer"?). Those are two things I would have been interested to hear about as well.

One important factor omitted from this story is that the electronic textbook is almost always a rental. Students often do not get to keep these electronic collections of information that they pay for. The textbook is available to them online for the semester and a short period afterwards, but then their access is usually cut off by the publishers. So...of course the publishers like it.

A continuing student movement across the country is trying to make textbook prices lower by targeting professors -- trying to control what they can order, when they order it, and when they make it known to students. This should not be a problem (as long as the timeline is reasonable, which it often is not) but the real target in the lower textbook prices battle should be the publishers. Since laws cannot be made about that, many states are passing statutes trying to control the professors. One element of many of these laws requires that publishers unbundle the material they often include with textbooks, forcing students to pay for something their teacher will not use. Once the pieces are disassembled, the profit is diminished (although not eliminated) This is yet another reason the textbook publishers are in love with e-books.

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