Digital textbooks

You are all probably aware that this is my particular preoccupation, but I thought this article from Inside Higher Ed yesterday was worth sharing with everyone. It has an interesting analysis of the crumbling business model for large textbook publishers, who have been the key supplier of course-related material, which plays nicely into some of the discussions we’ve been engaging in. The comments following the article are also very much worth reading:

The key concept this raises for me is that of ‘unfair’. Because I see this from the inside, I wonder if when students say prices are ‘unfair’ they recognize how much labour goes into a textbook. Content creators (writers, photographers, graphic designers) have to be paid, the people who fact check, line edit, and proofread have to be paid. The people who design and typeset have to be paid. Do without these aspects and students and profs complain about texts being ‘unengaging’ and ‘full of errors’.

One of the deeply troubling aspects of open source to me is the question of payment for creators. In the great open source future, will everyone just be expected to volunteer their labour?  Is the assumption that only the truly driven will create resources, because they will do so despite not being paid for it? If that is the case, is it okay? We pay people now for their intellectual labour (for example, the Davids’ salaries as paid by UBC) – will a system emerge that takes on this role?

I’m curious to hear the group’s thoughts on these issues. And despite where I sit right now, I’m genuinely curious about, and open to, alternative futures – I think that’s why we’re all in this course.



1 davidp { 10.08.08 at 8:53 am }

Thanks for launching this one, Laura. I wonder whether the Mod 6 team will pick up this topic too for its session with us all next week.

Clearly, the market model is being influenced by web-based form and function factors. Staying the course might be an option. But a more creative option could be that modeled by iTunes.

Prior to iTunes music piracy was rampant. When iTunes introduced form::function factors that met the market directly, it worked as a business model. Creators got paid, and music distribution via the web became a business model.

If you look at what the key factors were that contributed to iTunes success they would be:

* price point
* packaging (and its conviviality with digital milieu)
* attractive, functional and congruent devices for storage and display
* digital rights management (DRM) that is unobtrusive and flexible

So far, I am not seeing any movement of significance from the publishing industry on those factors. The devices are pretty crappy, including the clunky form factor of the Amazon Kindle.

I think the e-book market is embryonic still. Bigger breakthroughs in text and imaging may be needed to make e-books more viable. The factors listed above have yet to be addressed adequately to make a viable business model, IMHO.


2 Alex { 10.08.08 at 1:08 pm }

I, as a learner, love the idea of using digital textbooks. In fact, the present day science textbooks are ridiculously heavy because of the use of heavy paper. They must be health hazardous for serious students causing series of medical problems from backaches, to lethargy, to dislocated disks and to deformed shoulders. Also, indices are quite often inadequate in any textbooks for efficient studying: In contras to digital textbooks which support rapid searching. In order to heighten the quality of educational experience, we do need serious investment by the Ministry for digitalizing textbooks. : )


3 cwickes { 10.08.08 at 1:37 pm }

I can’t see digital textbooks becoming popular in the K – 12 market any time soon. It’s still the minority of the population that has access to the computer technology, internet, etc. that would make using digital textbooks a viable option for most people. It will undoubtedly become an advantage to higher education learners, who most likely have the technology available for digital access and the necessary printing components. (I still can’t study off of a computer screen; I need a text or printed paper copy to lay on the couch with…)

4 davidp { 10.08.08 at 3:28 pm }

Hello Cori.

I just check the stats for Internet penetration in Canada.


33,212,696 population

28,000,000 Internet users

84.3 % penetration

Source: I.T.U.

Must be another reason, no?


5 David Wees { 10.08.08 at 5:17 pm }

As someone who has written a paper textbook, I can assure you, they are a lot of work. I would also like to solve this problem (suggested in the article) of endless new editions to the textbooks so that I do not end up reworking my textbook every 3 years.

I’m not sure I understand the solution to this dilemna the author of the article listed. Is he suggesting that instead of paying full price for a textbook, the students essentially pay for the printing costs, and then a licensing fee is charged through the course for using the material? What’s to stop the publishing companies from increasing the fee to license the material each year?

6 Laura Macleod { 10.09.08 at 2:44 am }

Sorry – I know I jumped the gun on this and it more properly belongs to next week’s discussion. That kind of opinion just acts on me like I’m one of Pavlov’s dogs, though!

Thanks for the thoughtful comments – more welcome, and you’ll see lots of me next week in the forum!

7 David Vogt { 10.09.08 at 9:25 am }

Hey Laura –

No trouble on the timing of your intervention, it bridges a number of discussions and is welcome.

You should have good optimism in that fact that no matter where the digital world is going, people still *love* to hold a real book in their hands and they *love* to have some tangible keepsake for their intellectual endeavours. Both of these indelible factors suggest that textbooks (or, more likely, some strategically printed component of a blended learning solution) will be around for a long time. I believe the problem is, as DavidP suggested, more that the business model of publishers is the high price-rating of the printed part of the learning solution.


8 Susan Wilson { 10.10.08 at 6:26 pm }

I bought a digital textbook this year – a Physics text for my online classes. It was about $685 and I can use it for all my online students (about 25 in Physics 20 and hopefully as many in Physics 30).

I think that it is great. I do not have to do the work to transfer anything online and I have a digital solutions manual to boot.

I don’t use the text a lot, but my students have each section available as a resource and I don’t have to worry about keeping track of book numbers or photocopy costs!

The only downfall is that it came in one large PDF – 105 Mb! I could not even convert it to another file type as most free converters had a limit of 100 Mb.

Thankfully, our IT people could “chunk” it for me – otherwise it was not of much use!

9 cwickes { 10.10.08 at 7:34 pm }

Whoa, Davidp, thanks for the stat info. I just checked that site – interesting – thanks – I’ll have to spend more time looking around in there….
I actually find it hard to believe 83% of the population in Canada uses the internet! But OK, so people have internet but they won’t necessarily bond (right away anyway) with digital textbook technology. The majority of the population is also older, isn’t it, and I think it may be hard to make the switch to the digital format from the paper kind. Just my guess.

10 davidp { 10.13.08 at 9:54 am }

Yes, that’s what I was getting at.

Despite the stats on Internet use, there must be a host of other reasons limiting *real* access and utility, especially with e-books.


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