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It’s Time to Embrace the Post-Textbook Era in #HigherEd

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The recent report of textbook publisher Cengage Learning Inc. filing for bankruptcy (Howard, 3 July, 2013) seems to be another clear sign that textbooks as we know them are nearing their end. As part of the Cengage press release about the bankruptcy filing they stated that the company is planning to transition from traditional print texts to "digital educational and research materials." We already live in a post-PC world with serious implications for education,  what will the death of the textbook industry mean for educators and students, and how can higher education professionals and students embrace this trend and what will benefits will it yield?

Is the Post-Textbook Era Really Here?
Data from a wide variety of sources, including the Pew Research Center, indicates that, while the transition from print books to eBooks has slowed in the last year, electronic texts are still overtaking print. The Pew data shows that in some demographic groups, there was as much as a 15 percent increase in eBook reading (all readers age 16-17, 30-49, and household income between $50,000 and $75,000), while almost all groups showed an increase between 4 and 12 percent (rural readers were the outlier at 3%).

Despite the struggles of publishers, the same decline is not as readily evident on college campuses (Howard, 27 Jan., 2013). While some in higher education are moving towards "rental and digital, as well as offering custom print jobs," (Charles Schmidt, National Association of College Stores, quoted in Howard, 3 July, 2013) academia has not fully embraced the digital text yet. A forthcoming study from the City University of New York, cited in a recent Chronicle article, confirms the fact that students prefer eReaders for pleasure reading, but print texts for academic work (Grossman, 17 July, 2013).  In understanding why textbooks, as opposed to print books in general, are not as dramatically in decline, it is important to understand the fundamental difference between the two.

The Difference Between Academic and Pleasure Reading
Having done a great deal of both academic and pleasure reading in my time, I see several very clear distinctions (and one glaring misunderstanding ) between the two modes that explain the slow move to e-texts in academia.

  • Comprehension vs Speed – The most important aspect of academically-focused reading is to understand what you are reading. If you don’t get it, you must reread the text or look to additional sources for clarification, possibly marking your place and physically seeking the information elsewhere. Pleasure reading is about getting to the good parts, the action, horror, drama, or climax as soon as possible. Pleasure reading, for many people, is a high speed thrill ride. If you don’t understand something that happens, it’s not a big deal, it will either become clear later on, or it’s irrelevant.
  • Retention vs Enjoyment – In addition to understanding what you read in an academic book, you are also expected to remember it and possibly put the information to use, thus turning it into knowledge. Pleasure reading is exactly the opposite. There is no expectation that you will need to act on the information you have ingested or that you will ever need to recall any of the details. It is, essentially disposable.
  • Annotation vs Consumption – A significant part of comprehension and retention for many is the physical act of annotating the text as you read. This can be annotations within the margins of the text or on a separate pad of paper or computer. To fully engage with an academic text we like to interact with it in some way, creating a dialogue that will help us to remember the information. When we read for fun the speed and enjoyment of the act supersede any need or desire to stop the ride to take notes. There simply is no need and doing so would ruin the aesthetic appeal of the act of reading itself.

All three of these contrasting elements begin to explain why academia has not fully embraced the digital textbook, but the perceived inability to annotate digital texts is the defining difference. But, in reality page marking, highlighting, and annotation/note taking are supported by all of the major eReader formats. Most people don’t realize these features exist or have yet to explore them. In fact, digitizing these activities could provide enhancements to academic reading that are not possible with print texts, such as searching for keywords, exporting notes to other formats, or collaboratively reading and note taking with others. These are some of the reasons that the post-textbook world will arrive sooner than you think. Here are a few more as well as some of the challenges that need to be faced.

The Benefits and Challenges of Electronic Textbooks for Faculty
For faculty members there is a far more mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks to switching to e-texts. Talking to my spouse, who is a language and literature professor, highlighted both the benefits and challenges quite clearly. In her language classes the textbooks are prohibitively expensive, so much so that she and many of her colleagues have been forced to consider alternatives to the bound textbook, such as unbound books and electronic resources. What she did indicate however, is that having actual print books and workbooks helps in her teaching because of the need to have students physically working in and referencing the books, trading work, and other activities that are made easier when everyone can have the same physical medium in front of them.

In her literature classes, however, she indicated that electronic texts provide both a cost cutting measure and provide students with the ability to expand the text by referencing online information and sharing it with the class quickly and efficiently. Further, some fairly obscure books – even out-of-print books – are available electronically and sometimes are even available for free (though she did acknowledge that there can be issues with this such as copyright and incomplete texts). Print publishers plan their publication schedule largely on the works that have the potential for the most sales. This doesn’t allow for as much currency and exploration (e.g., into areas like lesser taught languages and literatures).  Digital versions are less costly, so publishers are more willing to accept and publish updates and a diversity of topics.

In addition to using mainstream texts in electronic format, digital books provide an opportunity for faculty members to create their own books, either from scratch or by compiling resources from a variety of sources into a single digital collection. Here are the benefits and challenges for both types of use.

Aside from the cost in time for faculty to create/compile their own texts, the model of customized, multimedia enhanced, digital texts provides significant benefits for faculty that largely outweigh the negatives of copyright, tech skills, and time costs. The idea that education becomes less standardized and information becomes decentralized actually fits with the Information age paradigm and continues a trend in those directions that should eventually lead to a much needed change in the way education happens.

Benefits of e-texts for Students
In my opinion, a switch to e-texts for students is almost entirely positive. Aside from providing them with the types of media that they are most comfortable using, there are other significant benefits that make academic eBooks a win for students.

Students, particularly in an era of concern over the escalating costs of higher education, stand to benefit the most from a move into the post-textbook future. Not only will a move away from print texts decrease costs for students, it will enhance their education in ways that will help align them more closely with the expectations and needs of the 21st Century economy they will enter after graduation.

Moving Beyond Print Texts
There is little that students can do to hasten the demise of the print textbook beyond making it clear to their advisors, professors, and campus administrators that they want and expect to have the benefits of enhanced electronic resources as a standard part of their education. Students and their families are the customers in higher education and, in a capitalist system, demand from customers should drive the industry to adapt. Students need to make their voices heard about e-texts in the same way they have demanded social media integration on campus.

Faculty members have the potential to play a more direct role in bringing about these changes. For starters, considering free online textbook sources like Bookboon.com which provides over a thousand free e-textbooks on a wide variety of subjects is an excellent place to begin making the change. There are dozens of other sites online which provide free or low cost textbook alternatives for faculty looking to help move beyond print texts. I provide a list of some of them separated into academic subjects here. For literature,  consider Google Books or Kobo for access to works in the public domain. But what if you want to create your own e-texts for students?

The switch to e-texts need not be immediate or an all-or-nothing deal. Consider remixing your curriculum to include a selection of digital resources that enhance the textbooks you already use. Many faculty members are possibly already doing this. What I propose is collecting resources in a single easy to access location. Moodle and Blackboard can provide much of the functionality, and both now provide mobile options. Beyond these standards consider these other resources for remixing your curriculum which will provide enhanced customizability and options for interactivity.

The move to a post textbook world cannot happen without substantial pressure and work from those most deeply affected by the reliance on print media – students and faculty. If there is a push for students to receive the benefits of digital texts that is embraced by faculty who are willing to make the effort to accommodate their request, this transition can happen far more easily than other major changes in higher education. The benefits of digital textbooks make education more efficient, more accessible, and more engaging. Aren’t those things every student and their professors should want?