Thursday, June 13, 2013

Students: We'll Give You Our Print Textbooks When You Pry Them From Our Cold, Dead Hands

Digital Book World did a $45 webcast yesterday on e-textbook trends. Happily, they provided a free summary today because the news isn't new and instead confirms what we knew.
While publishers are increasingly creating and selling digital materials and students increasingly have the devices on which to consume that content, only 3% of students last semester used a digital textbook as their primary course material (for a specific course). That’s down from 4% for the fall semester.

Overwhelmingly, students prefer print, according to the survey of 1,540 undergraduate college students at both four-year and two-year institutions of higher education.

When asked why, about half “prefer the look and feel of print;” nearly half say they like to highlight and take notes in the textbooks; and a third cite that they can’t re-sell digital textbooks.
So it goes.

U.S. director of Bowker Market Research, Carl Kulo, who presented his research, predicts e-textbooks will take off in the standard prediction range: 3 - 5 years, the rate of take off now for the past 15 - 20 years. Hey, don't laugh, predict this often enough and it's bound to right.

But digital sales are increasing  -- "Despite the stagnation of digital textbook adoption, some publishers are reporting that a significant portion of their revenue is 'digital'.” -- with Pearson reporting that 50% percent digital revenue.

So let's ask this: if e-textbooks aren't selling, what is? Homework systems? Tools like e-portfolios? Course design and faculty development services delivered digitally?

What purpose does a textbook serve? To dump information, advice, activities, assignments, guidelines into a single device -- for years a print device bound by covers and held by string and glue -- so that an instructor could direct students to read, do, discuss, remember, write about, lab about, and even learn about what the book covered.

Students are right -- simply taking that print thing and dumping into a PDF and delivering it on a screen does suck compared to having the print book. It's like difference between drinking a fresh gin and tonic on a sunny afternoon on the back porch overlooking a quiet beach from drinking a gin and tonic that was poured a few days ago and delivered flat and diluted for your drinking pleasure in a place where the view is of the brick wall across from you stuck-shut window in the room with no a.c.. Sure, it's still a gin and tonic, but it don't look and taste the same, and isn't improved by being in a hot room with no breeze and no view.

Now we do PDF-based e-books because they're cheap, fast, and make more money than they lose for being cheap and fast and allow us to say to the market we have lower-priced options and books that can be read on an iPhone (even though Bowker finds most students prefer laptops still), and other reasons.

e-textbooks will take off -- are taking off in fact -- when and where the word 'book' means something different than what the print thing is. Where the purposes and contents and activities once in print live a native digital life, with a digital rationale, where things are unbound from covers and rebound to learning purposes and needs.