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

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Multiple Impacts
This shift from print to digital and the expectation of more-flexible dynamic content is impacting universities, publishers, students, and instructors in varied yet intersecting ways.

Adoption by universities ranges widely, notes Todd Eckler, EVP of print and publishing at North Plains Systems in Toronto. "What I'm hearing is that they don't know the best way of going about doing this. Some universities are drawing lines in the sand: ‘As of this date, we will not be using any print materials.' But, when you dig underneath the hood, that position is overridden by some department levels. ‘OK, you send it to me electronically, but I'm just going to print it out.'"

"Universities are getting pressure from the students and from the parents in terms of costs, and they're looking for the publishers of the content to provide them some options and solutions to be able to solve that for them," says Eckler.

Frank Lyman is a spokesperson with CourseSmart, in San Mateo, Calif., a digital resources and etextbook provider, formed as a new venture by six higher education textbook publishers. He says he doesn't see a total transition to etextbooks anytime soon. "I don't think that will happen very quickly," he says. "I think [traditional and etextbooks] will live side by side for a long time."

James agrees, noting that it is an emerging process similar to the process of moving courses online. "Now, the next stage is what do we do with these textbooks? Returning adult students as well as traditional college-age students are more immersed with electronic media. I think it's going to be a conversion that's going to be ongoing." However, he adds, "I think the schools that adapt earlier are going to have an edge in the marketplace."

Publishers are being forced to consider new models of delivering content, and some are further along than others. The difficulty for all is developing the ability to turn static content into flexible content.

"The challenge is knowing how it's all going to take shape," says Kranenburg. "How many different device manufacturers are out there right now [making] ebook devices? How many different formats are out there? How many different kinds of ebooks are people experimenting with? There are so many different forms that this could take and also so many different distribution models that could apply." Still, he says, "It's exciting."

"It's a test of a different business model for publishers, but it really doesn't change the fact that publishers are in the business of creating really valuable content that provides a world-class educational experience," says Lyman.

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