Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

The E-Textbook Revolution

Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

The E-Textbook Revolution

Article excerpt


This chapter of The No Shelf Required Guide to E-book Purchasing traces the evolution of the e-textbook and identifies several emerging best practices in the technical and business aspects of this new class of products.


Everyone knows what a textbook is.

Mention the word, and a clear picture pops into your mind: some version of a twelve-inch, seven-to-ten-pound, hard-covered, glossy-paged, pulp doorstop. Third-grade math or graduate medicine, it is likely composed of many short units and peppered with colorful illustrations, tables, and exercises. It supports the study of a finite subject area, and it will very effectively fill the average backpack, if not the average brain.

But what comes to mind when someone says "digital textbook," or "e-textbook"? Is it simply screen-rendered replicas of those same print pages, the identical book, only without weight and, hopefully, without quite the cost? Or is it something more: interactive and filled with 3-D animations, self-tests, videos, and active equations? Is it a device--a tablet or dedicated reader--or is it software running on a laptop and a smartphone? Is it Web-based or downloaded? Is it all of these things seamlessly working together?

And just as importantly, who made and who owns this new e-thing? Must it be a product of the legacy publishing industry: the multifaceted, multilayered apparatus that today sponsors research, develops art, guards copyright, and scrupulously oversees licensing, peer-review, manufacture, marketing, and distribution? Or is it something new: a self-generating, self-sustaining, crowdsourced, open access wiki book, changing constantly, developed by everyone and owned by no one?

The education industry has been grappling with these issues for more than a decade, and answers have been surprisingly slow to emerge. The good news is that in the last eighteen months answers have been taking shape. Adoptions are increasing, both at the institutional level as well as out in the "free range" student market. It has taken a veritable alignment of planets--instruction, technology, content, and business-but there are now clear signs that e-textbooks have arrived. One industry observer, Simba Information, summarized its findings in 2010 with the following: "Many industry observers believe that digital will become the dominant format in college materials, [soon] relegating print to a supporting role. Certainly, digital textbooks and multimedia materials in general are setting the pace for growth in higher education.'' (1)

This chapter traces the evolution of the e-textbook and attempts to identify a few key emerging best practices in the technical and business aspects of this new class of products.

A Brief History of the Digital Textbook

The emergence of the e-textbook has depended on three distinct but parallel innovation paths:

* technical capabilities (including infrastructure and student computing)

* delivery software (that balances protection of intellectual property with user-friendliness)

* sustainable business models

Planets had to align. A basic threshold of computing power and connectivity had to be in place to provide fast, meaningful access to digital products. At the same time, though, traditional publishers would commit their valuable intellectual property to this process only if the delivery software proved able to protect their content from the rampant piracy that occurred in other markets, like the music industry. This protection, of course, had to be delivered through software that nonetheless provided end users with cool features and useful learning tools. Finally, business models had to be developed that provided for the survival of content development without making the products unsustainably expensive for learners.

Early Trials

In the mid-1990s, the education world first saw digital content in classrooms in the form of CDs in the backs of books. …

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