Sometimes E-Textbooks Are Like Hybrid SUVs

I’ve been cheerleading electronic textbooks in these pages, so it’s perhaps more important to point out shortcomings when I learn of them.

From Wired Campus comes word of a study demonstrating in some cases pretty narrow savings for students renting e-textbooks compared to buying paper.  Published in EDUCAUSE Quarterly, the study ran over four semesters at Daytona State College and examined four means of textbook distribution: print purchase, print rental, e-text rental, and e-text rental with e-reader device.  I’m not inclined to try and summarize the conclusions, because they resist easy summary.  The key takeaways identified in the article were:

  • In preparation for campus-wide e-text adoption, Daytona State College completed a two-year comparative study of four textbook distribution models: print purchase, print rental, e-text rental, and e-text rental with e-reader device.
  • Though faculty and administrators may embrace e-texts, students often prefer to rent printed textbooks.
  • Institutions seeking to implement campus-wide e-text adoption should be prepared to address specific concerns, including faculty choice, infrastructure needs, student technological skills, cost savings, and instructional adaptation.

Nothing necessarily surprising here.  The study did take care to address courses where the book demands would be different, but there were plenty of variables involved in the whole study process.  For instance, there were issues related to rights clearances and customization that have not been effectively addressed for electronic texts.

Then there’s the lede from the Wired Campus summary – in some sections studied, the cost savings for e-text compared to text purchase were narrow – as small as $1.   That, amongst other data presented in the article, really emphasize that the distribution of e-texts is likely to provide at least as many challenges to e-text adoption as any technical challenges.  It also suggests that print rental may be a viable competitor to e-textbooks for a bit longer than previously thought.