A sampler of some eTextbooks

For decades, students have engaged in a classic ritual to honor the start of the school semester: a visit to the college bookstore to purchase textbooks. This usually requires perusing course syllabi, waiting in long lines at the check-out counter, shelling out a lot of money, and dragging a heavy bag of books back to the dorm.

For the past several years, students have had an alternative to the bricks and mortar bookstore visit and that is to purchase electronic textbooks. eTextbooks, as they often are referred to, constitute a natural subspecies of the growing body of electronic books now available. Through the Tufts Bookstore website, Tufts students can preview and purchase these books online for some of their courses.

Recently, eTextbooks have been the object of much attention among institutes of higher education because they clearly offer an alternative to print; yet, to the surprise of many, they haven’t been uniformly adopted by either students or faculty.

Advantages of eTextbooks

For students, eTextbooks would seem to offer specific advantages over their print counterparts. One is their portability and weight (or relative lack thereof). With eTextbooks, students don’t need to transport much at all. Depending on the book, it can be viewed on any computer or on eReaders, Smart Phones, and other mobile devices.

eTextbooks also enable students to bypass the constraints of physical campus bookstores. They don’t have to worry about which hours the store is open or if the titles they seek are sold out. At the end of the semester, they don’t have to stand in another line to sell back their purchases.

Another advantage is eTextbooks can utilize the features we’ve come to expect in web pages and Adobe Acrobat PDF files. They enable zooming, rotating, and scrolling; they provide options for highlighting, bookmarking, and note taking; and they may enable selective printing and downloading. By offering full-text searching, they allow students to bypass the weaknesses of an inadequate table of contents or index. Some eTextbooks also offer interactive instructional features, such as online quizzes, charting, and graphing, as well as supplemental tools such as online dictionaries and calculators. Others offer technologies to assist those with vision or learning disabilities.

Faculty can benefit from eTextbook products that allow them to overcome the limits of a print textbook by creating their own versions, selecting only relevant sections (sometimes of one or more texts, sometimes from different editions of the same title) and annotating them. They can add supplementary materials, such as online lab manuals, rotating problem sets, assessment tools, and online bibliographies. And some platforms, such as Pearson’s MyLab, offer so many bells and whistles that they could compete with learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard or Sakai. An additional benefit from some publishers is the handling of copyright issues that may arise from the use of these features.

Another notable feature is that eTextbooks can’t be “sold out”. Authors and publishers can make a title available for a longer period than they might in print. At the same time, the electronic platform enables authors and publishers to make updates and corrections more easily and cheaply and to supplement an aging text with new problem sets, quizzes, and other supplemental materials.

So why aren’t eTextbooks the only game in town?

Despite the appealing features of eTextbooks, they have yet to displace print books. eTextbooks comprise only 2-3% of course materials sales and both students and faculty appear to have reservations about them or are unaware of them as an option. Various studies, including ones done by the Student Public Interest Research Group’s “Make Textbooks Affordable” project, show dissatisfaction with eTextbooks due to cost, content, and accessibility. Seventy percent of people polled preferred print books when cost was not a factor. Other studies indicate that 50% of students are unaware of the eTextbook option.

Though eTextbooks have been touted by publishers as a less expensive alternative to print textbooks, whose prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, the true costs to the student may be more complex than initially meets the eye. Consider the current options for Tufts students. They can compare textbook pricing by visiting the Tufts Bookstore website, which promotes eTextbooks as a way to “Save up to 50% of the new text price.” These electronic titles are made available through Universal Digital Textbooks, a service of MBS Textbook Exchange. The textbooks featured come from major educational publishers, including McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Wiley. Upfront, they generally cost less than the new or used print version. For example an introductory chemistry textbook published by Pearson costs $207 for a new print edition, $155 used, and $150 for a digital download. But these costs can be deceptive.

First, many eTextbooks are not truly owned by the students – they are essentially subscriptions. The Pearson chemistry text is available for 540 days (essentially for three semesters) before access to it expires (many fade away after 180 days). If students want the product for the long term, they must renew the product, which ultimately costs more than purchasing the print edition. Students can attempt to print the textbook but many publishers build in printing restrictions and printing a multi-hundred-page text incurs its own costs.

Second, while students often can “return” an ebook purchase if they have not “activated” it, they cannot trade it in at the end of the semester or get a refund on their purchase. They also may face restrictions on printing, copying, and other aspects of digital rights management (DRM). Third, while most eTextbooks are intended to be used on regular PCs and laptops, some textbooks are specifically designed for eReaders such as Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle which would have to be purchased at an additional cost.

eTextbooks are also not popular because many texts do not come in digital format, and as long as print versions are available, faculty have little incentive to seek online alternatives that may be less satisfactory. Ungainly interfaces and navigation, slow loading, poor image quality, or access issues may make eTextbooks unappealing. Some eBooks are really just fancy PDFs, therefore providing little incentive to migrate to a digital version. In addition, faculty have expressed concern that eBooks will facilitate plagiarism, cheating, and copyright violations.

The rapidly evolving and multivariate landscape of eTextbook production and distribution can also impede uniform adoption of these products. Students and faculty are bombarded with a host of new sources, formats, and features. It takes time, research, and effort to digest all these options and to determine whether they provide products as satisfactory as the traditional ones.
In addition, new eTextbook platforms may require the involvement of institutional departments that previously were not involved in textbook purchases. Comprehensive eTextbook collections, for example, might be a logical purchase for university libraries since they are already buying other eBook collections, but libraries have traditionally not been funded to buy textbooks, raising questions about new funding sources. eTextbook platforms that mimic or can be embedded into LMS sites may require the direct support of academic technology departments. At the same time that new models for official textbooks are being introduced, the internet provides both faculty and students with a universe of alternate resources that often prove to be more than adequate substitutes for the traditional textbook.

Finally, the slow acceptance of eTextbooks may reflect a personal preference by both students and faculty for reading printed texts and perhaps adhering to a long-standing view that a useful textbook is not “disposable.” And although most undergraduates at Tufts and other institutions have spent much of their lives in a digital world, the odds are that their exposure to textbooks was primarily in print format and they may view that format as the norm. If, going forward, pre-college education focuses primarily on electronic texts, future college classes may consider them as the preferred, if not the only option, for textbooks. Likewise, as publishers improve their functionality and expand their offerings, they will provide greater incentive to faculty to migrate from print.


eBooks definitely are an option for both students and faculty for their course texts. The use of these products is likely to expand in the coming years, and educational institutions are likely to see shifts in how they are purchased and used in the curriculum. At present, the eTextbook landscape, like that of other digital products such as mobile devices, is emerging and somewhat confusing to the consumer. Yet it has the ability to create exciting new ways to enhance the use of technology in the classroom, hopefully for the benefit of both the student and the teacher.

Karen A. Vagts, Engineering/Business/Mathematics Librarian, Tisch Library

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