Are textbooks a thing of the past? Maybe paper ones are.

Kindles, Nooks and the iPad (perhaps especially the iPad): while e-reading is the hot new thing this year, it’s the textbook industry that most are predicting will see the biggest impact from e-book technology.

Compared with traditional textbooks, the iPad and other devices for reading digital books have the potential to save on textbook costs in the long term, to provide students with more and better information faster, and — no small matter — to lighten the typical college student’s backpack. (USA Today) At the same time, a robust online marketplace of used books and recent inroads by textbook rental programs give students more options than ever. The prospect of digital books and slow-but-steady growth in free online “open” content loom as developments that could upend the textbook landscape and alleviate the perennial problem of rising prices.

Back in August, Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, LLC (a wholly owned subsidiary of Barnes & Noble, Inc.) announced an expanded textbook rental program; at the same time, the company offers thousands of eTextbooks and the NOOKstudy program.

Some say it’s the iPad that’s making all the difference. A shift to e-books within the textbook industry has been expected for some time, but it’s the arrival of the iPad that seems to have jump-started momentum in that direction. In a recent piece on NPR (The E-Textbook Experiment Turns a Page), Matt MacInnis of Inkling talks about why iPads surpass their paper counterparts: “We give guided tours through complex concepts,” he says. “So rather than seeing a picture of a cell dividing and then having a big, long caption, you can now tap … through all the different phases of cell division and see those things unfurl in front of you.” At Reed College, students tested Kindles last year (the results were lackluster and mostly unsuccessful; students reported understanding the course material less with Kindles than with paper textbooks) and are testing iPads this year. Most express positive feedback with the iPads, though they often cite the cost of purchasing one as prohibitive. Still, as MacInnis points out, when a printed textbook can cost hundreds of dollars alone, students may be swayed to purchase hardware that will allow them to download a chapter from that same textbook for $2.99.

MacInnis says he’ll be aiming straight for the students. He says, “I can absolutely guarantee you that the guy with the book version is looking over the shoulder — with envy — at the guy with the iPad version.” (NPR)

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