• Print

The time is now for digital textbooks

Digital textbooks have reached a moment of punctuated equilibrium.

Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that says that evolution isn’t a straight line. Species remain the same for long periods of time, and then suddenly there’s a burst of dramatic change.

That’s how I see digital textbooks. We’re poised to see all the years — if not decades — of predictions and debate left behind. Change is here. It’s driven by technology, by the arrival of ebooks and the digitization of print, and by a consensus among publishers and educators that the time is now.

Sooner than later, more learning will flow into minds of students from digital than analog source materials.

This point was made dramatically — and for me, too sensationally — by Nicholas Negroponte at a recent Techonomy conference. He proclaimed that the “physical book will be dead in five years.”

Now keep in mind that I’m co-founder of Kno, a start-up digital textbook company that has a very strong point of view about what an educational device needs to be. Nonetheless, pronouncements about the imminent demise of textbooks aren’t helpful. It feels like digital gloating. This isn’t a matter of sides, it’s a matter of what’s best for students, for faculty, for the future of America — and how to eliminate the barriers to digital adoption.

Barriers to digital adoption

Barriers to digital adoption exist on three levels, and they will not fall away overnight. But by understanding them, and dealing with them intelligently and collaboratively, we can create an environment where the pursuit of academic goals, a reverence for tradition, and an embrace of technology can exist healthily together.

The first obstacle is structural. The educational establishment has been built on the scaffolding of printed textbooks. Semesters and courses are structured around them; professors write and review them; publishers are part of the fabric of departments and the administration.

The second gating factor is emotional. Universities are traditional and slow to change, particularly when such a seminal component of the college experience is at stake. This is not a new complaint. More than 70 years ago, H.G. Wells wrote “We are living in 1937, and our universities, I suggest, are not half-way out of the fifteenth century. We have made hardly any changes in our conception of university organization, education … for several centuries.”

The third hurdle is political. Textbooks are proxies for surrogate wars over hot-button issues like evolution, gender studies, and competing views of history. They’re even fought over subjects seemingly as non-controversial as algebra. Because digital textbooks are fundamentally an open platform — capable of being continually modified and adjusted — this new architecture is threatening to all those with vested interests.

Overcoming the obstacles

Three events are needed to overcome these barriers:

  1. The development of a device that honors the textbook while incorporating a full digital experience.
  2. An open platform that encourages innovation.
  3. The development of extraordinary applications that will push education to new levels of pedagogical discovery.

It will also require the full participation of publishers, educators, and administrators in this process.

As for the political obstacles, these will fall away. Advocacy groups will realize that they can’t make textbooks a battleground anymore. The open world of the Internet has changed the game forever. It’s no different than brands learning they can no longer control the dialogue: any shopper can go to Walmart.com or Amazon.com and read negative consumer reviews of products being offered for sale. Not long ago, experts said it was impossible for merchants to allow that on their sites.

So despite the obstacles, I believe we have reached the point of punctuated equilibrium and change will happen. I wake up every morning increasingly excited by the potential for transforming the education system.

We’ve spent decades on distracting debates about issues like the role of technology in the classrooms. Meanwhile, we’ve been failing our young people. As evidence, look
to this recent The New York Times article: “The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.”

Let’s encourage the spirit of innovation in higher education that we need to succeed in a global marketplace. Digital textbooks are a critical first step.


tags: ,

Comments: 13

  1. Just a comment on the antiquated nature of the classroom. THe only new technology since the middle ages is the blackboard! There is a great lecture by the cultural anthropologist, Mike Wesch.

  2. Aren’t there more barriers to digital textbook adoption?

    You seem to only address universities.

    What about K-12?

    Color devices mandatory. No current eReaders are color.

    Up-front device cost? Who pays that? The parent of the 3rd grader?

  3. Adelaide University in Australia has stated that all science students in 2011 will be given an iPad and that all learning materials, including textbooks, will be delivered via that medium.

    More here:

  4. “The first obstacle is structural” elides the economics of textbooks. The cost of a device to read the textbooks disappears when compared to the cost of textbooks themselves. How can you dismantle the current profit structure that pays professors and publishers ? That’s the primary problem to be solved, and I don’t see any solutions currently.

    In Florida, they have made a start. It’s actually gone to law – this lays down the affordability requirements for textbooks in the community colleges.
    As part of this effort, the CCs are planning to publish their own e-textbooks.

  5. From my experience in K-12 and higher education, it is easier to notice the organizations reluctant to change than those which are changing. For example, research universities tend to be more tradition bound than community colleges. Even within research universities some departments or programs change more rapidly than others. It is a typical phenomena with the diffusion of innovation. At the beginning change is scattered, small in scale and hard to notice until a point of punctuated equilibrium is reached.

    I think this is an exciting vision. I am glad to see a vision for an electronic textbook that isn’t trying to be a purely electronic version of a book full of “text.” There are too many projects trying to reproduce the traditional textbook in electronic form. This misses the point of technology-that you can revolutionize business models with a new technology-but is typical of the early application of technology in a new area.

  6. One more thing to remember is education’s status as a civil right. One political barrier that won’t fall away is the need for educational opportunity to be available to all kids, no matter what their economic, linguistic or disability status is.

    Much easier to design things like accessibility into the front end of a product rather trying to retrofit it in…

  7. H.E. Sir Victor JW Pekarcik III

    Well said.
    Yes, I completely agree and there are more challenges that must be addressed. I am glad that innovation and technology can improve the current state and hopefully soon these will all be addressed and more importantly solved.

    Digital will be the standard in the future. On paper, digital or print the “Digital Textbook time has come… almost.” However there are other challenges to consider. If you don’t get Government, Universities, Publishers, Content Creators, The Colleges & Universities, their Professors all on the same page it just becomes another “Vaporware Solution”, great for getting funding, but not improving the long term challenges faced by students and parents.

    If however a solution can bring these various groups together in a common goal then the solution can really make a difference. I am not on the side of the publisher, or the Digital Widget Designer, only the Venture Catalyst that wants to see these groups work together with a common goal of improving the education system not just here in the US but around the world.
    People are slow to change which has always been the challenge in any market. The idea of reading words on a screen is not as appealing as on a printed page, the student usually needs to flip back and forth between many pages, and in most cases between several textbooks “at once” the Achilles Heal of the Digital Solution, that will one day be solved. Currently 60% of the 17+ Million College students would rather pay for a low-cost printed book than get a free digital version. That mindset has to be motivated & changed. When a solution is good enough to solve some of these challenges, that will be a much easier task.
    Some things for this stake holders to solve:
    Who owns the textbook, and if one of the selling features is all the notes you will be able to make in them, what happens when the digital book gets deleted after 6 months automatically.
    It always comes down to Standards:
    The Digital Textbook Device creators will want to be the defacto standard and then as the market increases and more vendors come into the market, they will want to offer special features to ensure their continued sales. Translation: You have to use our Device as not all course materials will be available for the reader the student invested in. Since it theoretically saves over time, the initial investment is going to be in the $1000 price point, which is a very large initial cost outlay, it is not reasonable to expect students to make any investment of one or more devices without some guarantee, that some if not all of their required books will be available in their selected format. Which means the device MFG need to create an open source consortium, otherwise they will doom the market to failure before it even has a chance to grow.
    Digital textbooks should cost a lot less than their printed versions. The publishers will always have overhead costs: Editors, authors, proofreaders, indexers, administrative, and all their employees that create this $8 billion dollar a year industry. There will be cost savings: shipping, shelving, printing, binding. etc. Many textbook publishers publish electronic editions of their books. McGraw-Hill publishes nearly 95% of its books electronically.
    The challenge: the cost delta “savings” for electronic textbooks are disproportionate. A textbook published by a large publisher costs $75 used, $100 new (Printed). The digital version costs just over $80, a savings of about 12.5% over the printed version. One challenge, the printed version can be kept forever, and if nec. sold back at the end of the semester to lower costs for the student and parent who is on a tight budget. The digital version is automatically deleted after 6 months. As a parent & student, which of these options makes more sense? This paradigm has to change.

    There is a great opportunity for this market to thrive, to allow students a better solution for their desire to gain knowledge, but the Device creators need to come up with something better than “Gone are the days of the 20lb backpack”, or “significant cost savings”, especially when there really isn’t… yet. People are smarter than that, at least we should hope so. The education market is not a market that should be exploited, just because of its size. Gone are the days of selling the Koolaid to incoming students to help them start their credit rating… for a cost, at their expense. If we invest in the future, then everyone wins. The publishers want to get their content to the students, the device MFG creators want to do the same, if everyone can work together, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.

  8. Must we remain bound, even through metaphor, to the textbook as a model? The economics of print technology required standardized editions that fail to reflect the fluidity of knowledge. Let’s leave the metaphor of the textbook behind us. Instead, open, networked learning should aggregate and respond to discovery and analysis in real time while drawing relevant materials from resources across a spectrum of disciplines. We can include many more voices and create much more engaging models for learning. Dr. Beth Harris and I created Smarthistory.org, a conversation-based multimedia art history web-book to begin to do exactly this.

  9. So true, digital textbooks are a critical first step to encourage innovation in higher education that we need to succeed in a global marketplace. I don’t understand why the role of technology in the classroom isn’t higher on the list for academia across the board. I am in a graduate writing program where it seems we are pretty up to date with the ever-changing technology. Computers fill each classroom; we have a “virtual” class online where we can exchange ideas and information.
    But I haven’t seen any (exclusive) digital textbooks assigned as of yet. Yes, there is much to be resolved as far as the publishing logistics and financial aspect of the business goes. But will the physical book be dead in five years, as Nicholas Negroponte proclaimed?
    I doubt it. There will always be a huge amount of book fans, readers, writers, and students who prefer the printed page. And with digital technology changing faster than we can keep up, there is a new generation of young folks (students and business people) who actually prefer digital reading. I’m pretty sure that demographic is growing as we speak.
    Of course, we want the professors and universities to keep up with the students’ abilities to absorb the information. Once the academic world sees that the digital form of learning must include textbooks, and after they work out the logistics, it will most likely (within 5 years) become the norm.
    In our “Writing for the Web” class, two of the authors we have studied (Betsy Lerner and Jason Epstein) predict with confidence that publishing machines that print-on-demand will be commonplace in the near future. As much as I try to visualize “ATMs for books,” I can’t fathom how that would be the wave of the future. Sure, it will save the publishers money from printing too many books. Yet if we go totally digital, (thus being more environmentally sound), every classroom, university, and school will adapt. The will have to!
    Back to the textbook issues, and your three barriers to going digital. The structural and emotional can be resolved. It will only take time. The political hurdle, not so much. Textbooks as proxies for surrogate wars over hot topics will always be around. With digital textbooks as an open platform, you’re right, the new architecture is threatening.
    Just as the Internet is an open platform, digital textbooks will be capable of modification, revision and change. Is that so bad?
    I love your three events needed to overcome the barriers, and totally agree that those are required for digital textbooks to be norm.
    Your most important point here is that it will require the full participation of publishers, educators and administrators. I believe that by default, that will happen. It just may take a little more time that we hope.
    And I agree that we have been failing our young people. Your quote from the New York Times article “”The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations,” blows my mind. Why don’t our universities take note and move forward to keep us in the global marketplace? Yes, we should encourage the spirit of innovation in higher education. Bring on the digital textbook!

  10. Education today has to be global. Knowledge has to be global. Books have to be global and this includes digital textbooks and all other ebooks. The best people doing this so far are on the University and Lifelong Learning pages on http://www.10muses.com

  11. After looking at your 3 barriers to digital textbooks, it looks like Kno has overcome all of these! (I can see this post was written over a year ago). I haven’t made the switch to digital textbooks yet, but I an anxious to check out Kno’s platform

  12. CollegeBookRenter

    Not a fan of digital textbooks, a physical book is what I like.
    But I don’t have unlimited space, so, I rent books from companies like http://www.collegebookrenter.com, which saves me a lot of money too.

  13. I don’t mind a digital platform to some books, but others I would much rather have a physical textbook with me. I usually rent mine from http://www.collegebookrenter.com so that way I can have something in my hands and not on the screen before me.