Digital Textbooks and Open Educational Resources – Summary of SOCHE Think TV session

On Tuesday, May 3rd I recorded a 15 minute segment for the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education on Think TV, the local public television station in Dayton, Ohio.  My topic was the rise of digital textbooks and options available for students and faculty to access and produce textbooks and learning materials.  Below is a snapshot of my general comments with links to various sources for more information.

Our current textbook system is broken.  We have arrived at $200 textbooks and have students who cannot afford them.  As a result, students try to borrow a textbook from the library or a friend (sometimes the older edition), purchase a used one, or go without.  Neither of these options provides revenue to the publisher, thus resulting in higher price points in an effort to recover the costs or production.   What can we do about this catch 22?


  • A chart posted in the Benzinga blog on October 25, 2010 shows a 20 year period of the consumer price index (rate of inflation) vs. the rate of inflation for college tuition and textbooks.  Tuition and textbooks are rising at twice the rate than general inflation (6.7% vs. 3.3% respectively).
  • Students in 2-year public colleges found that 72% of college expenses were spent on college textbooks (DOE stats from FY03-04).  As a result, students can’t afford their textbooks and it is causing a generation of dropouts.
  • According to statistics sited by the AAP and McGraw-Hill, 20% of students aren’t buying any textbook
  • Students say finances are dictating college and career choices (Forbes magazine article). College prices keep going up, as states struggle with budget deficits. Average tuition, room and board rose to about $16,000 at in-state public schools this year and $37,000 at private schools. Most college students – 84 percent – need more than one source of cash to keep up, the poll of people ages 18 to 24 found.
  • Student Public Interest Research Group on affordable textbooks website states that students spend an average of $900 per year on textbooks
  • What is it like being a student today? Michael Wesch and the students of the introduction to cultural anthropology class at Kansas State University prepared a video called  A vision of Students Today.  The video demonstrates the answer to this question, including a variety of comments about textbooks, technology, multi-tasking, and study habits.

Will students use a digital textbook?

Forecasts say Yes! According to a new study by Xplana, textbook publishing in the Higher Education market is fast approaching the digital tipping point. By 2015, annual revenues from digital textbooks will represent 25 percent of the new textbook market and will reach approximately $1.5 billion in sales revenue.  The study, “Digital Textbook Reaching the Tipping Point in U.S. Higher Education — A Revised Five-Year Forecast,” projects annual sales growth and market trends for digital textbooks over the next five to seven years. It is based on private surveys conducted by Xplana and its parent company, MBS Direct, as well as other industry and market research.  Source.

Student surveys say, (mostly) No! A post on the INFOdocket blog from April 19, 2011 reports on the findings from the March 2011 “OnCampus Electronic Book and E-Reader Device Report” by OnCampus ResearchOnCampus Research is the the research division of the National Association of College Stores (NACS). 655 college students were surveyed.  Print textbooks continue as the preferred media option among this demographic. Fully 75% of the college students in the March 2011 survey said that, if the choice was entirely theirs, they would select a print textbook. This is similar to the findings of the October 2010 e-reader survey, as well as one done in the fall of 2008.  However, the results showed a 6% increase in e-book purchases of any kind when compared to a similar study done in October 2010, while fewer students are relying on laptops or netbooks to read the material. Nearly 15% fewer students said they used those devices to read e-books, while 39% said they used a dedicated e-reader, up from 19% just five months ago. “Although the vast majority of students still do not own a dedicated e-reader, this is a significant jump in five short months,”says Julie Traylor, NACS chief of planning and research.  Earlier reports from May, 2010 at OnCampus Research say that 74% of college students still prefer to use a printed textbook when taking a class.  From the press release, “even with new digital handheld gadgets, smart phones, pads, and laptops glued to every college students hand, 74% still prefer to use a printed textbook when taking a class, according to the findings of a new Student Watch study conducted by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) that helps companies better understand the college market.”  The survey also found that 53% of students were unsure about purchasing digital textbooks or would not consider buying them even if they were available.

Kent Anderson asks, do students really prefer print books to e-books in his blog post at Scholarly Kitchen.  Anderson says, “The survey (from OnCampus Reserach) is drawing the wrong conclusion by framing the question in terms of media choice. It’s not about print versus electronic. It’s about economics and selection.

But digital textbooks just make sense, according to an article in Publisher’s Weekly.  They save money, there’s no heavy backpack to carry, and authors and publishers can virtually eliminate the used book market by going digital.

Current Digital Textbook Options (a sampling)

There are a variety of digital textbooks on the market today.  Many of these are available through online vendors and students have the choice on renting or purchasing the content in digital format, and also in print.  Many publishers have developed intricate systems for textbooks and other learning materials combined with audio/video content, assessment pieces, and social networking.  I’ve selected a sampling of services below.  These new sources for textbook content might offer cheaper alternatives because they offer rentals, but the same basic problem remains, students can’t afford the textbooks.

  • AcademicPub – custom textbook creation with real-time copyright clearance.  An article in Campus Technology on 4/26/2011 highlights this new service.
  • Chegg – rent or purchase digital or print textbooks
  • CourseSmart – textbooks and digital course materials, read online or download to a reading device.
  • Inkling –  an interactive textbook development company.  They make textbooks for the iPad and recently received funding from McGraw-Hill and Pearson.
  • MindTap, from Cengage Learning – a program of digital products and services, including Cengage content, that engages students via interactivity.  Sample videos are available at
  • NOOKstudy – free eTextbook application for PC’s and MACs. Students purchase the books via B&N.

Open Educational Resources – A solution?

Open educational resources are books, documents, and other educational materials that share several things in common: they are protected by the creative commons license by which content may be copied, shared, or changed so long as the original author is attributed; they are developed by a community of authors or users and intended for educational purposes; and they are free.  Open defines a resource/textbook where the rights are held by someone who is making the textbook available to us with some rights reserved and some rights to us.  How did open textbooks start? — They started with individual faculty members and now have moved to aggregators like MERLOT and CONNEXIONS which are grown from universities and often funded by foundations. Some states, like Florida, have created their own digital repositories for OERs.  Professional publishing operations are being established as well, like Flat World Knowledge.

Open Educational Resources offer the 4 R’s of Openness

  • Reuse — right to copy and use verbatim copies
  • Redistribute — Right to share copies
  • Revise — right to adapt, rework, and improve
  • Remix — right to combine into new OERs

Some basic information about OERs and open textbooks can be found at the following sources:

Several services offer OER’s and open textbooks.  A sampling includes:

What is Ohio doing in the higher education environment?

Ohio launched a digital textbook project in 2009, one that experiments with traditional textbook publishers and open educational resources.  The primary objective of the Ohio Digital Bookshelf is to improve the return on investment in education- by freezing the rate of textbook price increases and improving the learning outcomes of students who use them.  They have four main goals according to Stephen R. Acker, Research Director, The Ohio Digital Bookshelf:  Increase student learning; Reduce cost increases of 8 — 13% per year;  Generate improved ROI; and  Escape the tragedy of the commons (individual actors pursuing self interests to the extent that the “commons” fails).

Ohio’s Digital textbook project – webinar summaries:

OhioLINK has been named a recipient of a $750,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), a new initiative focused on identifying and scaling technology-enabled approaches to dramatically improve college readiness and completion, especially for low-income young adults. OhioLINK’s winning project will build off of its successful Ohio Digital Bookshelf program by creating multimedia and self-assessment tools to help students succeed in fundamental math and applied engineering courses. OhioLINK’s proposal was one of 29 recipients chosen out of 600 pre-proposals and 50 finalists.

For more information:

No Shelf Required Audio interviews about digital textbooks:

Michele Sordi, VP and Editorial Director for the Higher Education Group at SAGE Publications.  We discussed the SAGE textbook program, barriers to digital textbook adoption, and the role of librarians in digital textbooks on campus.

Eric Frank, Co-Founder and President of Flat World Knowledge.  We discussed the Flat World Knowledge product and business model and the future of the digital textbook.

Nader Qaimari, the Senior VP of Marketing for Cengage Learning.  We discussed MindTap (TM), a program of digital products and services, including Cengage content, that engages students via interactivity.

3 thoughts on “Digital Textbooks and Open Educational Resources – Summary of SOCHE Think TV session”

  1. Amil and Thad,
    Thanks for your comments.

    Amil, I think students are just more comfortable with print right now. There is no learning curve for using a print textbook. At WSUL we recommend a variety of textbook sources to students (print and online), in order to find the best price (not necessarily a particular format). I’m not aware of any studies on eye fatigue with regard to digital textbooks, but you bring up a very good point. I’m sure there are some out there.

  2. With respect to the use of textbooks, is it the confusing pricing models which shift students towards print where there are a few options and you own it or not?

    Or is it a case of students not receiving support from their lecturers/librarians on the use of etextbooks?

    Of course – shifting to print does involve a different set of benefits to be clear, and though one may assume students spend time online – we need to be sure that lessons from web design and eye fatigue/usability come through to digital textbook offerings.

    Would love to hear others thoughts on the above?

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