The Short Shelf Life of Digital Textbooks

By Samantha Peters

Digital textbooks are all the rage these days as students and school districts clamor to get the iPad, download and fill it with $15 textbooks, and rid themselves of the heavy traditional versions once and for all. But digital textbooks are not the present – or even the future – of education. Here’s why:

1. School districts still save money by using textbooks.

Yes, digital textbooks are far cheaper than the physical variety. But various other costs – chief among them the price of an iPad and the need to periodically repurchase digital versions – drive the digital price far higher. One study found that an average school would spend $215 per student per year when following a digital textbook strategy. This compares with a far lower cost of $90 per student when only traditional textbooks are used. Although some schools with sufficient resources will surely still jump at the chance to make backpacks lighter and lessons more interactive, the significant costs associated with a digital program will prevent most districts from following this course.

2. Students make money off of textbooks.

At the high school and college levels, textbook purchases are usually the responsibility of the student and not the school. This system has caused many to speculate that digital textbooks would catch on most quickly here since students are far more likely to be tech savvy, iPad-friendly, and willing to do away with the textbooks of old. But students, just like school districts, are unlikely to find any financial benefits from digital textbook use. They expire, after all, while the traditional variety can be resold on a site like to recoup much of the initial expense. Any college kid looking to take out student loans for graduate school is going to want to pursue the most cost-efficient option.

3. Textbooks of all kinds – both traditional and otherwise – are going the way of the dodo bird.

The two above points illustrate that digital textbooks are currently not economically viable. But we can certainly expect them to drop in price over time – an expectation that has many people heralding digital textbooks as the classroom staple of the future. Such a belief ignores the fact that textbooks of all kinds are currently experiencing a slow decline.

Before the internet age, when teachers had a more difficult time acquiring classroom material, the textbook was a necessary instructional tool. These days, however, the ready availability of articles, stories, journals, videos, and assignment ideas on the web provide numerous alternative ways to teach a given topic. Teachers have consequently found themselves using textbooks less and less. We can only expect this trend to continue.

Sometime in the near future (probably in the next 10 or so years), an iPad-like device will surely become standard in school classrooms. Students will use it to work, research, and communicate with each other. But by that time, the textbook, in all likelihood, will be long dead – both in its digital and physical forms. There’s no question that the age of the digital textbook has arrived. But whether it will truly have an educational impact – in the present or in the future – still remains to be seen.

6 Responses

  1. THe presumption is that the technology is everywhere. It is not. The presumption is that everyone has the tool or will have the tool. We don’t have broadband yet. I don’t know if the phones can work to download the texts. What other options are there in the market? Only IPad? How many years have we been talking about broadband for all without being inclusive , or caring about those who do not have digital equity. .

  2. I completely agree that that equitable access to technology and broadband internet does not exist, which is a real shame.

    It would really help level the educational playing field if all had access to personal tablets and E-Books. The iPad is not the only option on the market but is by far the most dominant due to Apple’s iBook author app.

  3. As you suggest, it’s just a matter of time. I have to wonder how long it took before all schools were equipped with blackboards. How long did it take, much more recently, to put projectors in all classrooms?

    Education is a conservative institution, as it should be.

    Yet, the textbook, in both forms, is a zombie — the walking dead.

    Our future students will learn interactively with online resources that adapt to what they do. The pedagogical power of these new tools will far exceed that of mere text or even videos.

    The problem today is that investors shun the educational marketplace — and for good reason. So, we must wait as these new tools evolve slowly. Also, as Bonnie suggests, we wait for access for all.

    Note well though that you don’t have to have broadband to have good learning tools. You do have to have reasonable Internet access — at least reliable access.

  4. There is another more serious issue which you don’t appear to mention, that of shareability. In the UK it is NOT common for children (K-18) to own their textbooks – they are provided by the school. There are two elements to this:

    Firstly a class set of textbooks may be used by several different classes or having been studied, may be acessed later for revision purposes.

    However, secondly, as a teacher I would never expect my students to rely on ONE textbook but to have access to a whole range of texts and commentaries, and thus encouraging a more comparative approach to individual learning – Why did this author say “….” and yet another has a different point of view “….”.

    Comparison and evaluation is at the heart of academia, and has been for many centuries. When all texts and teacher-generated resources become freely digitally available then perhaps true academic study using digital sources might become realistic on the iPad or Windows tablet – or more probably an Android. Until then I see no real future for the iPad except as a rich-person’s toy.

  5. Samantha, love your post. I am a pioneering person in technology. So I have a houseful of old technology, Anyone want a couple of very expensive laser discs. I bought and got grants for a lot. My husband has finally convinced me to get rid of them. I still have a couple to keep just for old times sakes. I don’ t have the laser disc player. That was the technology of the times and I loved it. But you know, technology changes and your treasures become junk. I have a ton of old games and discs. Discs anyone? Anyone? Anyone? I look at them and think of the funds and the grants that I used to get them. But I also know that there are places where these are still new stuff. ..Well not the discs, but the information on the games. Remember Oregon Trail? Amazon Trail..Odell Lake, Odell Down Under. .. Ok some of them are on the web free.. Lemonade Stand , Hotdog Stand and others..
    IF they were an adventure book, or poster… well maybe someone would be able to use them.

    I got a kit recently , in the mail. I did not buy it it came from the NSTA. About health and nutrition. Did I mention film strips, movies, and videotapes? I have a collection of those too.. Voyage of the Mimi anyone, anyone? The kit at least had a video and a game on CDRom.

    So I went to Thomas Jefferson’s home to see the garden and the grounds. He had a library which sort of survived .. Glad it was not a
    piece of technology , a movie, a laser disc, .. you think of the list of the discarded carriers of technology. Make your own list. Remember the big radios that people used to carry, the tape recorders. I have a closet full of that junk. OK I have gotten rid of most of it.

    Did I mention my expensive Nikon? I used to develop my own films and share them with kids , long hours in the lab for good reason. So
    slides and photos are still ok, we put them on Facebook or Flickr
    and share. What a concept.!! Floods and fires can’t touch, but being an older technology user, some of of my online photos have disappeared into the past with the technology that was used to put them online. AOL.. remember?

    No I am not going to ask Nikon anyone, I still would like to have a monster camera, like the one I roamed India with and my 200 rolls of film. On the other hand I have an IPhone and as long as the electricity is available , technology changes so quickly, Not wishing for hieroglyphics, but they are survivable technology that we can still read
    interesting. Tablets, whiteboards.. technology is ever changing and with benefits, but also with costs of transformation.

    There is something else, who gets to decide what is on the tablets, whiteboards and I pads.. Those of us from different backgrounds that could be considered broadening engagement can tell you that the dearth of information is a huge gap. Vendors rule the education world and they get to choose the content.

    Books are usually out of date by the time they are printed. I get that.
    But I have technology transfer materials in lots of closets. I can’t say lots of money wasted, I say , technology changes , often.’

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  6. The question of whether digital and physical textbooks will be dead in the next 10 years or so, may depend on whether the web will allow would-be authors to gain reasonable remuneration by selling, via websites, some part of their work, or by engaging in affiliate marketing if their actual work is freely available. If reasonable remuneration does not eventuate then this will be a significant disincentive to proceed further down this track. Web users tend to expect information to be free on the web and so authors have to be pretty savvy to make any money.

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