Digital Textbooks: Publishers and the Unrealized Promise

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Students, instructors and institutions aren’t afraid of digital. Publishers are.

Michael Boezi

Editorial by Michael Boezi, Vice President of Content and Community at Flat World Knowledge

Is it any wonder that digital textbooks haven’t been widely embraced yet? Most digital textbooks are just overpriced, static versions of their printed counterparts.

That hasn’t stopped the hype about digital textbooks. On one hand, it’s the promise of a new learning experience, with spinning molecules and interactive modules. On the other, it’s the long-awaited solution to the industry’s painful pricing practices. Maybe even both, if we dare to dream it.

The technology and platforms are available today. So, is it that students prefer printed textbooks? Some do, sure. But those numbers are declining year after year.

My contention is that students have yet to be offered a good product for a good value. A printed book rendered on a computer screen is not what we imagine the Digital Promise to be. The opportunity exists to completely rethink the product.

Why is this not happening?

In a word, protectionism. The legacy publishers will tell you that they can’t make digital textbooks both high quality and affordable, but that’s not the issue. It’s that they don’t want to.

Most digital textbooks are just overpriced, static versions of their printed counterparts.

Most e-textbooks are about half the price of their printed counterparts. The problem is that half doesn’t get you very far. It’s still an expensive book. And — an important distinction — you are not actually buying a book. You are buying temporary access. Many e-textbooks are priced at over $100 for 6 months of digital access.

So, students stick with print. If you are the incumbent, this makes you happy. The broken model gets to carry on for another semester, and you get to say that you are just giving students what they say they want.

Students want to succeed, but they are not getting what they want. Textbook prices are limiting student access to the material they need to do well in their courses. A recent national student survey found that “roughly one out of every three seniors and 1 in 4 freshmen don’t buy required materials because of their price.”

Another survey found that “78% believed they would do worse in class without their own copy of the required text.” These students are at a huge disadvantage, yet they are still choosing not to purchase their core textbook—even when they know that it will negatively affect their grades.

Imagine if students could chose affordable digital products that don’t expire after six months. Their textbook expenses would drop significantly, and they’d have a better shot at succeeding.  Completion rates would go up, which is good for students and instructors, as well as higher ed institutions, whose state funding is getting more closely linked to student success.

It’s not the students who are resisting digital. Aside from the student surveys, here’s another proof point that when you offer students a good product and the power to choose their format and price, they willingly embrace digital.

At Flat World Knowledge (disruptive ed tech company and my employer), for the first time in fall 2012, more students bought digital textbooks than printed books. For now, students won’t find much more than basic ebook functionality, just like the legacy publishers. But they will get affordability (a $19.95 entry point product) and lifetime access to the content they purchase. For $35, students get every digital format offered, including the complete set of digital study supplements.

As for instructors, while most say they want to use more digital content, they don’t want to be the first line of tech support for students who lose their passwords or have trouble navigating, according to a new report (PDF) from O’Donnell Learn, on behalf of Blackboard, the learning management system (LMS) provider.

Presidents, provosts and administrators are paying attention too. This year, we’re having more conversations about licensing our platform and catalog on a per seat basis, or annual full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrollment. The big advantage of the FTE model for the institution or university system is the ability to provide their students with immediate access to the complete catalog for a low annual fee, or to give students free access.

We will see more uptake of digital content when the legacy publishers start to offer a good product at a good value. Students, instructors and institutions aren’t afraid of digital. Publishers are.

DISCUSS: Are Students Entitled to Forego Buying Textbooks Because of Price? 

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.