Four Common Objections to Digital Textbooks

Opinion | Higher Education

Four Common Objections to Digital Textbooks

By Ariel Diaz     Dec 5, 2015

Four Common Objections to Digital Textbooks

The debate as to whether digital textbooks can stack up to traditional print textbooks rages on, intensified by seemingly incessant research and data exposing the outrageous costs of traditional print textbooks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college textbook prices have risen a shocking 1,041 percent since 1977—outpacing inflation by more than three times.

Making the jump to more affordable, online courseware is the logical next step to cut costs, and many learning platforms and digital content providers are stepping up to help. Even the government is in support of digital, open textbooks, with members of Congress recently proposing the Affordable College Textbook Act and the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign.

But despite available resources and growing support, digital textbooks are still met with doubt and resistance sparked by some key—and not so unfounded—objections.

No stranger to having to set the digital versus print textbook debate straight, I’ve pulled together a list of common objections to sort out what is, in fact, true and what is completely false. The top four digital textbook dissents I’m hearing include:

“A digital textbook doesn't offer the same lifetime access as a hard copy.”

Today’s digital textbooks typically expire after three to six months—that’s both correct, and frankly, ridiculous. Like hardcopy textbooks, students should be able to retain lifetime access to the information for which they pay so they can revisit and review materials as needed.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see a shift in more and more lifetime access to digital courseware as industry leaders step up to the plate. World-class open solutions offer not only lifetime access to the original content, but also access to content that is continuously updated as new information and discoveries become available and others become obsolete—something print textbooks cannot do. Ultimately, with the right solutions, students and teachers can forever gain access to the courseware and materials that are in fact superior to traditional texts.

“Students learn more effectively using traditional textbooks.”

The digital textbooks publishers are offering today are essentially glorified PDFs. With a standard two-column layout and often a lack of mobile optimization, they’re hard to read on computers and nearly impossible to read on smartphones. It’s no surprise learning and information retention are often not on par with traditional textbooks. However, dismissing digital texts as forever inferior to print textbooks is like arguing that we could never improve upon printed maps. Any analysis of today’s free, turn-by-turn directions on a smartphone will quickly render that opinion moot.

In order to make a true impact on teaching and make learning more effective, digital textbooks need to incorporate data analytics and insights to help educators, smart learning algorithms to help learning memory, personalized content and learning paths, mobile compatibility and study time optimization.

“Digital textbooks are actually less affordable because of the lack of sell-back.”

Because they are propping up the legacy textbook business model—one that continues to fail at considering the needs and concerns of the buyers (the students)—today’s digital textbooks truly cost way too much. One hundred dollars for a digital textbook, especially without the option to sell it back, is a far cry from an affordable price for anyone.

Price-gouging continues to be exposed across the industry, and support from the government and educational advocacy groups grows. I have no doubt we’ll see affordable, flat-rate solutions that leverage openly licensed materials take center stage to cut costs in spite of the absence of sell-back.

“Without Internet access, digital textbooks are useless.”

Where do you lack an Internet connection on a college campus? Virtually nowhere. And if you’re already partaking in online courses, aren’t you already using the Internet? While students will be required to log in online in order to fully leverage the power of any digital solution, a lack of Internet connection through Wi-Fi and mobile devices is quickly becoming a non-issue. In the increasingly rare event that Internet is not available, the right solutions will enable students and professors to print texts, study materials and assessments free of charge.

The digital textbook landscape is still evolving. We’re nowhere near where we want or need to be—something that rings strikingly clear in these common objections.We currently have to make do with technology that doesn’t balance the real needs of buyers and sellers.Yet I also believe we’re on the cusp of truly disrupting that landscape for those impacted by it the most: the students. And with digital courseware leading the charge, we can leverage technology to go from “making do” to “making better” in order to ultimately help save students money and learn more effectively.

Ariel Diaz (@GoBoundless) is the CEO of Boundless.

Correction December 7,2015: An earlier version of this article stated that textbook prices rose five times faster than inflation.

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