Ebooks on Campus: Understanding What Drives Adoption

Apr 10, 2013

Article ImageThe textbook market has long been ahead of the rest of the publishing industry when it comes to  digital books. Textbooks were a natural fit for e-readers, allowing for easy updates and social studying features, but a recent Springer whitepaper, "eBook Use and Acceptance in an Undergraduate Institution," says the proliferation of devices has not necessarily translated to higher ebook acceptance among college students at Wellesley.

According to the whitepaper, 73% of faculty and 70% of students reported having used an ebook, but attitudes toward ebooks differ, and not in the way you might expect. The report says, "Faculty appear to show a more positive acceptance of eBooks than students; 44.8% of faculty responded that eBooks can be an acceptable option. The highest student response (41%) is that although they use eBooks they prefer print."

One of the conclusions of the whitepaper seems obvious: "This data seems to support the idea that wider device ownership or usage could unlock a much larger adoption of eBooks." However, co-author of the whitepaper, Deborah Lenares of the Margaret Clapp Library at Wellesley College, says it isn't as simple as it sounds. "Our study is the first to document a correlation between device use and higher rates of satisfaction with ebooks in an academic setting.  Previous studies of ebook reading device use in academic settings have shown dissatisfaction with the devices available at the time of the studies," she says. "However, our data does not prove cause and effect.  We don't know whether use of a device provides a more satisfactory reading experience, or whether people who have a higher satisfaction with ebooks are more likely to own a device.  Further research is needed to understand whether device use creates a more satisfied academic reading experience, or if the correlation is based on other factors."

One discovery that might surprise most people, is that Wellesley faculty was more likely to own - or be planning to buy - a e-reading device than students. Generally, we think of college students, and young people in general of being early-adopters. So what gives?

"We were initially surprised by this finding," says Lenare, "However, the Pew Internet & American Life study ‘The Rise of E-reading' (2012) shows tablet and ebook reading device ownership highest among 30- to 49-year-olds. We attribute the difference to faculty having more disposable income. We received many comments from the survey about the high cost of devices, but we did not receive any comments about device overload.  It would be interesting to see if these results are consistent at other institutions."

Students were also more likely to use free ebooks than purchase them, so money does seem to be a factor. "The disparity between faculty and student device ownership is important to our understanding of how to support students in their use of ebooks," says Lenare. "After finding this result we held a workshop with our campus teaching center to help faculty understand how their students' experience with ebooks might be different from their own experience."

Some students indicated that print books were easier to take notes, though social capabilities that would make it possible for classmates to share notes or make other use of the technology didn't rank high on students' priority list.

Lenare says, "We asked about preferences for ebook functionality. The most important features were the ability to search within the text, read offline, and download to a device (90 percent, 85 percent, and 70 percent, respectively).  Other features, such as exportable notes and shared class discussions, were deemed important by a much smaller percentage of respondents (48 percent and 35 percent, respectively)."

So what can publishers and academic faculty take away from these findings? "Our most important recommendation is to make the content of the book easily downloadable without the need for specific apps, software, passwords, etc., and to reduce digital rights management as much as possible," suggests Lenare. "Students and faculty want to be able to use the device, apps and software that are part of their normal academic workflow. At this point this means making content available as an easily downloadable PDF."

("Ebook vs book" image courtest of Shutterstock.)