“E-books in college,” said Frank Lyman, EVP of eTextbook company CourseSmart, “have been 2 years away for 10 years…” That was two years ago, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. Tellingly, that article from January 2008 was entitled, “E-Textbooks—for real this time?”
While the moment wasn’t quite then either, many more people would now hold that the prospect of a widespread adoption of eTextbooks is, if not imminent, then perhaps just two years away—“for real this time.” The supporting evidence seems overwhelming. Several eReaders have since hit the market, generating significant sales—not only the Kindle, and the Kindle DX (specifically designed for newspapers and textbooks), but also Sony’s Reader and Barnes & Nobles’ Nook. The Entourage eDGe, with its dual screens (e-Ink and LCD) is a hybrid tablet/netbook designed specifically for student use. And there are a number of others either available or on their way.
But one would might excused for thinking that that these devices too will not quite inspire the digital transition. Kindles are mostly purchased by folks middle-aged or older—in fact, they’re especially popular with retirees looking to change font sizes and port around lots of novels and travel guides.
One might be so excused, that is, until Apple introduced its iPad last month. Publishers of all kinds, including the largest textbook producers—Pearson, Cengage, McGraw Hill—are lining up to add their content to the iPad. And these largest publishers are working with app maker ScrollMotion in order to make the digital texts as compelling as possible to students.
The trial of the Kindle DX at several universities, including Princeton, went so badly that it was halted early.
Their attractiveness to students is tied, though, as much as anything, to their relative costs (the saving they would bring over the physical texts). And that may be the rub here. Publishers (in general) are running to the iPad partly because they face nothing like the pricing pressure they do with Amazon’s Kindle. In fact, just the announcement of the iPad was enough to inspire publishers, beginning with Macmillan, to rebel against Amazon’s low pricing model and we’re now starting to see eBook prices rising, to the consternation of many readers. While this concerns popular trade books at the moment, there’s little reason to think that pricing will not be a major issue for the widespread adoption of eTextbooks. The Student PIRGs, a national student research and advocacy group, sums up the opening move on iPad based textbooks: “the iPad is cool but it won’t make textbooks affordable.”
Still, few would seriously doubt that we are nonetheless moving inexorably toward the digital distribution of classroom learn materials–we are, after all, just two years away from widespread adoption.