Are Textbooks Obsolete? An Education in the Impact of Electronic Textbooks

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The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is pioneering a new process for delivering information electronically, funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The process will allow professors to create textbooks customized to individual courses and teaching styles. The move is being pursued to enhance quality and increase affordability of higher education; the move to electronic textbooks also supports the university's dedication to adopting sustainable practices.

Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., has been testing different reading technology software for students for the past several years. The process has been headed by Jill Triana, coordinator of disability services, and Cheryl Todd, academic technology specialist. "This is the way that higher education is going," says Triana. "In the next 10-20 years, I foresee etextbooks will dominate the market."

Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a comprehensive liberal arts college known for its use of technology in and outside the classroom. Josh Baron, director of academic technology and elearning, says: "I strongly believe that we will see a migration toward electronic content over the next 3-5 years given the power that comes with digital content that can be updated in real time."
However, he adds that there are barriers to this adoption. These include finding the "killer app" that can best approximate the way humans are used to accessing information and overcoming the propensity of students-even younger ones-to gravitate toward the printed word. "Many studies are showing that students like electronic books and content, but ultimately insist on being able to print it out at some point," he says.

Still, although evidence continues to suggest that students and consumers in general are not yet ready (if they ever will be) to entirely give up print as an information source, e-readers, e-technology, and etextbooks are becoming increasingly common.

Cost is a major impetus behind this shift. The recession and student concerns about the cost of textbooks have been big drivers, according to Trevor James, faculty chair for business programs at Chicago's North Park University School of Adult Learning. James says that many courses have been adapted to provide students with online content rather than requiring them to purchase books. "Our focus is working with adults and graduate students; we're always consciously looking for ways to keep things affordable as our students come back," he says.

In addition to cost, as consumers become more familiar with the options that technology provides in terms of personalized access to information and accessibility anytime, anywhere, there is growing demand for digital content from many factions.

Rik Kranenburg is president of the higher education, professional, and international group at McGraw-Hill Education. "There's a wholesale transition building steam around the way content is distributed and then accessed by students and teachers, and there are multiple formats, multiple devices, [and] multiple distribution channels," says Kranenburg. "The combination of print and digital offerings does very impressive things; it opens up new opportunities to make instruction and study more effective, more efficient and more personalized," he says.

It's the transition that the publishing industry is well aware of. Iam Williams is director of custom learning solutions, higher education, at John Wiley & Sons, Inc. "We realize that the concept of reading a textbook cover to cover is all but dead at this point," says Williams. "By providing more-flexible access, we really deliver just the content that, at any point in time, somebody needs, without having all of this excess stuff that is not needed at that given time."

Schools across the country are looking at new ways to deliver content to their students. This is a major shift with predictable impacts on a number of key constituencies.

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