Professors and Students What do you think of e-books?

Professors and students, what do you think of e-book formats for course textbooks?

From USAToday by Roger Yu:

For a solution, the school is turning to e-textbooks. VSU partnered with Flat World Knowledge, a start-up publisher that produces exclusively written e-books with “open” content that can be modified by professors. In a trial with 14 business courses, students would be required to pay $20 and receive a Flat World e-book and digital learning supplements. (The university and a local grant have been covering the cost, so far.)

“That’s nothing. It’s what I put in my gas tank,” says Martin, who participated in the trial. “If I was walking into a discussion on a topic, I can just (download and) take out the book and read it on my phone.”

With their promise of ubiquity, convenience and perhaps affordability, e-textbooks have arrived in fits and starts throughout college campuses. And publishers and book resellers are spending millions wooing students to their online stores and e-reader platforms as mobile technology improves the readability of the material on devices such as tablet computers. Silicon Valley start-ups, such as Inkling and Kno, are also aggressively reinventing textbooks with interactive graphics, videos and social-media features.

Despite emerging attempts at innovation, the industry has been slowed by clunky technology, the lasting appeal of print books, skeptical students who scour online for cheaper alternatives, and customer confusion stemming from too many me-too e-textbook platforms that have failed to stand out.

The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, believed textbooks to be an $8 billion market ripe for “digital destruction,” biographer Walter Issacson writes in Steve Jobs. Apple is expected to make an announcement Thursday about its new education products.

“Today’s 8th graders will enter college expecting to use e-books,” says Dan Rosensweig, CEO of Chegg, an online seller of textbooks. “We are at the beginning of this arc.”

The market is small but growing. Sales for e-textbooks in the U.S. higher education market grew 44.3% to $267.3 million in 2011, according to Simba Information, a publishing industry research firm….

So far, students have been less than impressed and more likely to opt for print books. About 11% of college students have bought e-textbooks, according to market research firm Student Monitor.

Availability isn’t the chief problem. Most popular textbooks have a digital version, and they’re available online. But students have largely stayed away because the most readily available technology today — PDF (portable document format) or other document reader versions of the print book — is clunky and eye-straining to read….

They all agree on one thing: The quality of e-textbooks must improve dramatically. More value-added, interactive features — such as graphics, notes-sharing, digital annotation, instant quizzes, easy search, links to social networking, videos and the ability to add third-party content — will keep students interested and spur sales, they say….



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  • Greg Smith

    I read a lot of books on my Kindle. But my theology is still in a regular book. It is so much easier to refer back to material previously read. It is easier to mark and to refer to the marks later. Having said that, the textbook business is a racket. It is legalized crime. It would be interesting to see the e-book business offer texts at $20 just to eliminate the racket. I could make the adjustment for that.

  • I have tried reading e-books and I cannot get into it. I’ve also been in classes with students primarily using e-books and between accessibility and page numbers it often seemed to be a hassle.

    Without the ritual of underlining and starring, writing notes in the margins, and recalling exactly where things are on a page for future reference I feel as if my comprehension would decline. Even reading PDFs on my laptop can be difficult for me at times.

  • RJS

    I find e-books hard to read on serious subjects, so there is much room for improvement.

    I am against e-books for another reason though … the lack of a secondary market and the publisher monopoly. Minor changes, but a reorganization is used to ensure that students pay $180 for a new book sending perfectly fine older editions to the trash. E-books will be worse (as are most big publisher’s electronic extras) As they are frequently licensed to a specific individual and often for a limited period of time.

    The following quote in the article gives my biggest reason for disliking e-books in the classroom:

    Digital books can’t be resold, at least, not legally. “We’d prefer that all of it to go digital,” says Vineet Madan, senior vice president of new ventures at McGraw-Hill Education. “There isn’t a secondary market for e-books.”

  • Phillip

    I think interactive e-books with links to maps, photos, websites, etc. could be helpful. But I personally still prefer paper books that I can write in, flip back and forth, and that can be read without worrying the battery will die or the power will go out. I also like that I can take in more surrounding context with an open book.

    Some sort of citation system would have to be worked out as well, if students are going to cite e-books in term papers. Many e-readers change the page numbers as one changes the font, so some kind of universal reference system is needed. The same issue arises when trying to assign specific page numbers for reading assignments.

    With respect to libraries rather that just textbooks, I ,and I think many students, would also miss the serendipity of coming across a good and helpful book that one finds while looking through the stacks for another book. I know with my writing, I have found resources that way that did not come up in catalog or online searches.

  • discokvn

    when i had an iPod touch, i began to read public domain books that were classics on it and actually enjoyed it… now having an iPad, i’ve read several books (almost always public domain) and i have to admit i experience the book in a different manner.

    there are things I’ve not been able to read, but part of that is because of the “reader” program… example, several texts are available in the bible software accordance, and i don’t like scrolling down the screen, the software “experience” changes how i experience the text.

    one last note, i downloaded yellow submarine, and was actually repulsed by the interactive book… not sure why…

    sorry to be so touchy feely, but i think adoption will come down to the experience of the thing…

    one last note, i’ve not seen anybody discussing a. storage of textbooks (space on your shelves vs space within the reader/vender holding on to it for you) and b. how this could destroy the aftermarket of used textbooks.

  • I love the idea of e-books (not so much on regular computers or even color tablets, but on e-Readers with the eInk screens, they’re wonderful) and think they would do well as textbooks, but will confess I’m a bit leery of the idea of using Open Source versions as opposed to a more traditional model.

    Specifically when dealing with textbooks, that is. There is a strong bias against self-published works in academia, for example, because of the lack of peer review. While Open Source allows for peer review, it also has the potential to result in works that have information that hasn’t been properly verified. Think IMDB or Wikipedia. Useful, but not always reliable.

    I’m also very much in favor of using a standardized format (such as EPUB) through multiple vendors, lest (not only them, but face it, they’re the most likely ones) develop a monopoly.

    (By the way, most e-Readers allow for some form of “underlining” and note-taking. Stop destroying books and embrace the e-Reader!)

  • a

    I am a social work and research professor, and while I have not “banned” my students from using e-books I do strongly advise them to avoid them as textbooks. With the exception of books on theory, which read sequentially much as fiction would, I have found that students are unable to keep up in class with moving throughout the text. Similarly with textbooks that are instructive– RE– statistics and research methods–when writing their papers it requires very “hands on” interaction all throughout the book. Given the high costs of these “traditional” texts, I work very hard in other ways to keep textbook costs at a minimum.

  • Chad Davies

    As a physics professor I am very intrigued by e-books and I do foresee a time soon where they will displace regular books. To me, the key will be when the e-book/e-text becomes significantly more interactive that a paper copy of a text. Right now my textbooks are very static, obviously, but if my students can select links in the text that will lead to demonstration videos, simulations, additional topics, etc. then the e-book will have a much greater value. If I can tailor the book to more closely suit my class including reorganizing the chapters or subjects then I’ll be able to more closely align the book with what I teach. So to me, the technology offers a great deal of promise.

  • TJJ

    Fiction and light non-fiction is one thing. Digital books are fine for that. But for studying/researching and mastering new and complex information….I can only do that with traditional books. Maybe the technology will change sufficiently, but as for right now….no.

    I write on the pages, mark the pages up, book mark, paper clip pages, etc. I know that can also be done to some extent with digital, but not as easily and as fast and efficiently.

  • Chad Davies

    One additional thing that I might add is that I see great promise in reintroducing source material in classes. Instead of just having a textbook talk about an event in the Roman Republic, the text could link to the specific source in Livy, for example, that the textbook author used as the source for his or her work. In that way, faculty could ask students to do more critical thinking with the original source material. While this may be a little ambitious for the typical freshman survey course, it see it having great value for textbooks used for major courses.

  • Why is the loss of a secondary market considered a concern? Part of the point that Jobs was commenting on is that secondary market is completely secondary. Yes ebooks can’t be resold, but they can be rented. And if drastically cheaper then you have made back the cost of resale.

    If you buy a book for $120, sell it for $40, you are still better off if you can buy the ebook for $70, all things being equal, even if you can’t resell it. The publishers are trying to kill the secondary market as well by pushing new editions or specialized editions.

  • JHM

    I’m a new professor just getting into the whole university teaching thing and e-books versus print textbooks is something I’m trying to figure out for myself. I teach chemistry and in my freshman level class the textbook this year was $225, which seems inordinately expensive to me. For another class there is a free online textbook that is pretty nice so I’m doing a test run with it this semester.

    I personally think it could be best to either go towards open-source online texts (as websites, not e-books) that the academic community itself can work on or keep traditional texts and figure out a way to make them worth the price. Many publishers are starting to do online homework programs and video tutorials, for instance.

  • I think e-books hold immense promise.

    However, the temporal nature of e-books is a problem. How many of us will have the same e-reader in 4 years (or 2 years!). Will it be backwards compatible? Where is the committee setting e-publishing standards (a la the W3C for the internet)? Storage is still an issue. On these small devices, the amount of space being used by practical apps, games, music, movies, etc… is in direct competition with textbooks, so the idea of keeping a quality textbook for a lifetime may go out the window.

    All of that, and the ebook formatting software is closer to 1999-Internet layout than anything that can be done in print. I think in a few years, once the major eReader players have staked their claim we may get some stability in these areas, but for now it’s a wild (and rugged) frontier.

  • eBooks are fantastic – but in order to be fantastic textbooks, it needs to be possible to annotate them and easily search them or find one’s place in them. The technology and formatting to support those necessary features students need is not yet universal in ebooks.

  • David Himes

    I think we’re going to be using all e-textbooks within 10 years. The problems with e-textbooks is only that we’re not accustomed to how to use them and not accustomed to reading from them.

    In time, all that will change. We’ll learn to use them because we’ll have to. The lower cost is too significant to avoid this economic reality.

  • Fish

    I don’t like that there is no secondary market. Through astute internet shopping with care paid to editions and so on, I was able to find used textbooks for my daughter at half or less the cost of new ones, and then sell them at the end of the year for what I paid for them. My net cost was basically zero, whereas other families at her high school (who followed the official process like dairy cows heading into the barn to be milked) spent probably $500 when it was all said and done.

    When high school textbooks start costing north of $100, you know you are being ripped off. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no new discoveries that would obsolete a Cal 1, Chemistry or French text. It’s pure profit from a captive market.

    If you can’t sell it, you really don’t own it.

  • RJS


    Without the secondary market there is little to control the book publisher’s greed. Buying my daughter’s books – I could find most at 50% to 60% list. And renting is troublesome for many books (although useful for some). My first instruction to my P-Chem students … “Those math and physics books you sold back? Find copies, you will need them for this course.” (They also often need to be able to refer back to organic, inorganic, or analytical texts.)

    I think e-books will make a huge dent and may take over completely if things improve. But I think students will pay big for it – prices won’t come down.

  • Travis Greene

    They’re not cheap enough yet. A $20 e-version of a $40 book is not quite worth the trade off. Maybe of a $80 book.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the potential for out of print and hard to find books. Or very very niche publications. Or combining readings culled from various sources into a cheap/free ebook. Half my school readings are PDFs put on Blackboard anyway.

  • LeslieS

    I’ve read some ebooks but would personally feel uncomfortable replacing all of my texts with an ebook. I would highly recommend professors utilize the full text journal databases available in their libraries and that students have already paid for to create course readings instead of textbooks. Unlike the PDFs often posted to course management systems, the full text in databases doesn’t need additional copyright clearance. The downside is professors would have to work harder to make sure they keep their readings up to date.

  • RJS,

    Publishers will only allow greed to take over if there is no competition. Professors has some responsibility to take cost into account (that includes not assigning their own books if they are not the best book).

    The secondary market is important, but do you really think it is the major force is keeping prices lower now? I have read some decent arguments that the secondary market is a significant part of what is driving text book prices up. And I have heard some pretty convincing arguments that in a ebook world the price would drop because there is no secondary market. Right now publishers get to sell a book once and then that same book may sell against 2 or 3 more times without any profit to the publisher. So the publisher needs to put their costs into the first sale. Without a secondary market there would not be that same need.

  • Kevin Glenn

    I accidentally ordered both a hard copy and e-book of the same text for a seminary class. Wanting to make lemonade out of my error, I’m performing an experiment on myself. I first read the text from the e-book and use available tools for underlining and bookmarking. I then read from the hard copy with my trusty blue pen and highlighter.

    Reading from the hard copy was like reading the text for the first time. I retain so much more. Maybe it’s the other senses being involved (feel of the book, smell of the paper / highlighter, etc…). I also found that I can read the hard copy much longer than I can stand to look at the screen of my reader.

    It’s a work in progress. I still love my reader, but I favor hard copies for now.

  • RJS


    Many people I know who assign their own book donate the profits from their class to charity. But who would write a book based on their own class and then not think it is the best book for their class? (I have not written a textbook, by the way.)

    Book sellers are certainly trying to make the maximum possible profit in the first sale and also to make sure the book goes obsolete as fast as possible. The price will only go down if faculty refuse to assign overpriced texts. The large-enrollment ungraduate texts are money makers – the price is market driven for maximum profit. (This is not quite the same for lower enrollment upper division courses in my experience.) E-books may be somewhat cheaper, but I doubt price will go down much. The only prediction I make is that new editions will be spaced further apart as the captive market won’t have a secondary market alternative.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, with the “profits” I gain in my classes I buy donuts for the students. Is that charity?

  • RJS


    I bet the students think that is a good charity. (I’d hold out for bagels)

  • Amos Paul

    I second the bagels.

    One of my old professors used to bring in tons of candy bars in… it was great, except my diet of not wanting so much sugar had some troubles with it.

    Of course, he didn’t have us buy any books. He just like giving everybody candy ;).

  • Ron Newberry

    The NIV Study Bible app for the Ipad is a step in the right direction for ebook text books. There is an easy notes section and all is contained in the app. Other publishers should seriously look at that app.

  • This is such an interesting topic. Considering eBooks in general (not just the academic market) I believe the model is entirely wrong.

    We don’t need to own a book, our real need is to be able to use it whenever we wish. Imagine a scenario in which every title ever published was held in a cloud-based repository and you could access any and all of them at any time in exchange for a monthly fee.

    It’s the model used by Spotify for music, and it’s the model used by Questia for a selection of academic books. You’ll find both companies with an internet search. Questia is quite limited and a bit clunky, but regard it as a sign of things to come. I have a subscription and have found it useful – when they have what I need, of course. Authors and publishers can be paid per page viewed or according to any other agreed scheme.

    To have this working properly there would need to be universal agreement between publishers and the eBook provider. This has proved problematic for Spotify, but coverage here in the UK is pretty good.

    With HTML 5 it is now possible to provide good reading facilities through an ordinary web browser on any device, you could use your phone on the bus, a tablet at home, a desktop or laptop at your desk.

    I agree with the comments about usability of eBooks. There’s a great deal of room for improvement and I think we’ll see a lot of changes in the next five to ten years. In my opinion current devices and books are not fully up to the job except for casual reading.

  • I read eBooks on my Nook Color all the time, for school and for pleasure. The only complaint I have is that eBooks aren’t as handy for writing papers–you can’t flip through them to find the references you’re looking for as easily, and while you can take notes in them, it’s time intensive. Some eBooks aren’t well-formatted, and finding page numbers and citations in the book can be a headache. And working with books in PDF format is a colossal pain.

    Also, it pretty much forces you to buy an eReader. There was no way I could spend all those study hours behind my laptop, after working on a computer all day…

  • Robert A

    I like eBooks and the opportunities (largely over the horizon) afforded by them. To be honest I tried getting into them on my laptop and couldn’t do it. Now, with my iPad2, it is a good (not great) experience. Lots of issues to overcome.

    For my students and having been one, I would recommend eBooks if they were more affordable and a reasonable deal. Otherwise I’d tell them to stick to physical books.

    One of issues right now is that I’m never going to pay nearly the same price for an eBook as a physical book. If you cut it in half, now we’re talking. I think the eBook market is amazingly open if you can think around the corner.

    Looking at the latest iBooks app there are some attempts at drawing in content and making the engagement more rich. It does take an innovative mind and someone not bound by the (largely ridiculous) strictures of the current marketplace.

  • leah

    after i spent $40 at staples my first semester in seminary printing journal articles from the online databases, my husband bought me a sony touch e-reader for hannukah (it was supposed to be a christmas gift, but he couldn’t wait that long to give it to me 🙂

    its technology is a little outdated now – no wifi, a very early resistive touchscreen (your tablet/smartphone is capacitative; it works by electrical impulses. a resistive touchscreen works by detecting pressure; it’s not quite as smooth or elegant). but included in its software is the ability to use the stylus on the e-text the same way you would a pen on regular text – underlining, scribbling notes, etc.

    i like it a lot for novels and for research. any notes i make immediately become bookmarks in an article, so i can jump right to them when i need to cite something in a paper. it’s also wide open as to the formats it reads: epub, doc/docx, pdf (except for scans, which are image files, not text), html text.

    however, i wouldn’t want to use it for reference books for one major reason: i have a visual mind. you can’t flip through an ebook, looking for something you saw about 2/3 of the way through on the right-hand page. searching on a vaguely remembered bit of interesting info is tedious and frustrating. also, it’s not as fast.

    e-readers win over tablets by being lighter and easier on the eyes and having a longer battery life. in that way, they’re very paper-like. they win over physical books on weight too. i took several novels on vacation with me this summer, but on the other hand, i had to “turn my book off” when the plane took off and landed 🙂

    i also agree with RJS and others about the lack of secondary market. i own my copies of paper textbooks. i’m not about to start “licensing” them.

  • Michael Cox

    One can play hide and seek with e-books, but ‘ready or not, here it comes.’ Prepare to be found!

    As a PhD student, I couldn’t be happier. Much of this emotion is simply knowing that any book that I own electronically means that it doesn’t have to be packed and moved the next time I move (averaging >1 move / year for the last 8 years). Plus, I have my e-library with me wherever I am–coffee shop, library, home, airplanes, and waiting rooms. But other plusses include the ability to search the book and take notes that I can compile. I personally wish that more books were published electronically for purchase and borrowing from the library. Moreover, I long for smoother user interfaces with more capabilities from ink-screen readers.

    As for me, I’m going to choose a fairly conspicuous hiding place–I can’t wait to be found.

  • Allen Browne

    E-books only. For everything.
    Four years ago, I replaced QuickVerse with Logos Bible Software. The impact was life-changing. I now read everything in Logos: N T Wright, text books, journals, church fathers, theology, introductions, grammars, biographies, as well as commentaries.
    It’s pricey, but I can do so much more research in one hour, and it’s so versatile. Search. Highlight. Manage. Compare. Cross-reference. Lookup. Notate. Project when teaching. Worth every cent if you value you time.
    It is quite literally the only way to take thousands of books and all your research with you, everywhere you go.

  • Ana Mullan

    Somebody told me that they read a lot in their Kindle but they found they couldn’t remember as much as by reading an ordinary book.
    In my case I have visual memory so I remember by the place where a phrase or statement is in relation to the page, e.g.left top corner.
    So I would say that the brain will have to readjust to a different way of remembering. As Allen said, it is very useful and we use less trees at the same time, I think we still need the old type of books so we can use our senses, like touch and continue to train our memory in the “old way” of reading.

  • Diane

    Although a traditionalist, I love e-books, especially as textbooks. I travel back and forth each week between an apt near a seminary I attend and home, so the fewer books I have to lug back and forth the better–I would love to be able to pack only my laptop and go.

    I do appreciate the difficulties of not being able to pass an e-book on–that is a drawback. As for the limited time ownership, that too is disturbing–but on the other hand I have had paper books, even high priced textbooks, poorly made or glued, fall apart on me rapidly–the industry wants obsolescence regardless of format. As someone else said, too, moving stacks and stacks of books every time one moves is a burden. Books take up space, age, need to be dusted, kill trees–and pulp books fall apart. I love real books–but I also love being able to adjust print size on an e-book. I love the idea of being able to live in a smaller home because all but my favorite books are electronic. In an ideal world, both the print and electronic models would hold.

  • RJS


    There is definitely a place for good e-books. And I could see myself using one as a textbook. But there would need to be archival student access for at least 5 years through changes in platform. The more advanced the class, the more important this access is, at least within one’s major area of study.

  • Bob G

    Ahhh the good ol’ days! When the kids had to sell their dad’s Camry to buy their textbooks. When the the neon highlighter was the latest in technology, and book bags were reinforced with Kevlar, just to support the mass of the latest tome.

    This conversation is reminiscent of the 33 rpm record vs. cd debate. Mp3’s enter stage left…show’s over.

    Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Where are you in the process?