Digital Textbooks in Higher Education

booksThe move to digital textbooks has slowly been gaining momentum over the last few years as more institutions look to them as a way to cut costs. Cost is a very good reason, especially when the suggested retail price is upwards of $150 for textbooks in many of the sciences. However, pedagogy should take precedence over cost as a reason for adopting an eTextbook. But the approach taken by publishers in creating pedagogically sound eTextbooks has been largely lacking.

Nicole Allen, the textbook advocate for Student PIRGs was quoted in a recent Inside Higher Ed article as saying:

“Textbooks are necessarily disconnected from students’ needs as consumers, because textbook sales are not driven by students; they’re driven by faculty,” she says. “It’s important to remember that the consumer actually does have needs and desires and the students do have preferences as to whether they want to switch to a digital book or a print book, and they’re different. The best thing is to give students options, and a lot of them can make that determination themselves. I’m not saying that switching to e-books is wrong. I’m not an educator; I don’t know.”

I’m not sure how to take the comments that a textbook is “disconnected” from the students’ need as consumers” and “have preferences as to whether they want to switch to a digital book or a print book, and they’re different.” What is telling is the admission that ” I’m not an educator; I don’t know. But I represent students’ needs as consumers…” It appears that the reasoning in this statement is based in the fact that most current eTextbooks are functionally the same as the printed version. …. and herein lies the issue, in my opinion. Digital textbooks should be pedagogically different and better than a printed textbook. There is, basically, no value added in a pedagogical sense for most eTextbooks. If there were, then even if you’re not an educator, you might see the value for choosing an eTextbook.

For the most part, publishers’ eTextbooks are nothing more that the printed textbook offered up in a digital format. No new features, other than being able to hyperlink between chapters and facilitating highlighting and note taking are offered. In a digital format, active learning can be encouraged. Formative and summative assessments can be built directly into the textbook with immediate feedback provided. Multimedia enhancements for printed textbooks have generally been provided on a CD ROM. With an eTextbook, multimedia can be placed in the context of the chapter content, but most I have reviewed simply have the CD ROM contents tacked on via a link (if that).

The problem is, most eTextbooks have not been created for a digital learning environment. Most of those I have reviewed in geoscience fail to use the possibilities provided by the Web to make content more appealing, approachable, and engaging as a learning experience. Until this happens, the adoption of eTextbooks will continue to be a slow process.

(Book graphic Courtesy Applachian State University Library)

About Michael Ritter PhD
Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

One Response to Digital Textbooks in Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Amazon Plans Textbook-friendly Kindle « The Digital Professor

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