What is the future of textbook publication, sales, and use in colleges in light of the e-book revolution ?

The first generation of e-readers – including the Amazon Kindle DX and iPad – inspired a serious discussion about the implementation of those devices in colleges. Despite initial excitement, students and faculty from the University of Washington who participated in a Kindle DX pilot program “were dissatisfied with the device as a classroom tool, and…abandoned the Kindle” (Damast). The first iPad fared better in a pilot program at Duke University. In the university’s report following the pilot, instructors and students described using the device for “grading student papers, helping students learn to write in Russian, displaying and allowing interaction with videos and other media, and supporting note taking and recording observations” (DDI Report, 5). Many of those utilities were applications created and sold by third parties through the iPad’s App Store – something the Kindle DX lacked. The Kindle Fire, Amazon’s most recent e-reader, featured a brand new application storefront.

One of these applications, Inkling, is challenging traditional textbook pricing, selling texts by the chapter at reduced costs. Some major textbook publishers – McGraw-Hill and Pearson, W.W. Norton, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins – are offering interactive textbooks through Inkling. By instructing students to purchase specific chapters of a text, professors can exercise more control over class material and avoid wasting students’ money. Those goals are also accomplished via open access textbooks, which are written and published for free under an open content license. Orchestrated by the startup Flat World Knowledge, this model allows “professors to edit the raw material and add their own contributions while giving students access to a Web-based HTML book” (Gorski). Many companies already offer textbook rental services for laptops “at roughly half the cost of buying [the books]” (Gorski). The prospect of renting a semester’s worth of textbooks on a light and portable e-reader presents an alluring opportunity for students in a tough economic climate.

Many of the features on the iPad and Kindle are consumer devices and pose a challenge for students. Not only does studying on an iPad require more self-control to avoid distraction but as Nicholas Carr claims in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the online environment “promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (Carr in Marklein). While the e-readers’ reliance upon the internet could prove detrimental to students and faculty, perhaps the mental rigor and structure of academic activity could begin to shift how internet users interact with the online environment.

E-readers edge ever closer to meeting the demands of one of the most exacting literary audiences: academia. Still, it is a long path to the widespread implementation of e-readers in colleges and universities. The Library and Information Technology Association sponsored a study published in March 2011, claiming that “a very small proportion of students use e-readers…that price is the greatest barrier to e-reader adoption and [that students] had little interest in borrowing e-reader compatible e-books from the library” (Foasberg in Price). While this assessment of current e-reader use may be true, it seems a temporal truth. The continuing involvement of publishing companies, increasing affordability of e-readers and e-textbooks and the sustained interest of universities and students are quickly eroding the “barriers to e-reader adoption.”

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By Brennen Anderson

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