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Only a handful of years ago, digital publishing proponents touted the benefits of digital textbooks and their ability to replace the outdated dead tree... Where Are The Digital Textbooks?

Only a handful of years ago, digital publishing proponents touted the benefits of digital textbooks and their ability to replace the outdated dead tree model of educational publishing. Costs were reportedly going to drop exponentially, schools were going to save money in licensing, and the short life span of an outdated textbook was going to be forever changed due to the ability to update the book with a simple add-on chapter as needed.


Like most areas of the tech and software realms, there were more important factors than just the cost considerations. The capabilities of HTML5, for example, meant fully immersive learning. Tap a screen to open a full-color 3D rendering of a beating human heart, or simply poke the hyperlink to hear a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., without ever leaving your history book. Distance learning, global study groups, typed collaborative annotations that could be shared with learners around the world were all going to change the face of education.

So what went wrong? Why has digital textbook adoption not happened on the scale we’d originally hoped?

First, as too many stakeholders in the game did not realize, the extreme cost of producing a print textbook isn’t in the ink and paper. It’s the hefty price associated with getting a team of Ph.D.-level experts to write it. Even at the elementary school level, the front matter of any textbook will contain columns of names with a lot of letters after their them.

But the biggest consideration of all may be in the one piece of the puzzle that really wasn’t heard in the discussion: the students. Reports have shown that students don’t want digital textbooks, at least not as compared to those who prefer print. Why?

One long-speculated reason is in the way we as a society interact with software and technology. While many of the decision-makers in educational publishing looked at the convenience and the cost savings, students looked at the activity of studying itself. Their mobile devices are reserved for connectivity and social interaction, and their laptops are tasked with producing content. To really oversimplify things, their screen time is basically precious to them and they’re not as likely to use it for schoolwork.

Of course, there are other, far more practical considerations. Students at higher levels often crave used print books, not just for their cost savings but for the highlighting and annotations of the students who’ve come before them. While digital textbooks often include bonus features like practice tests and study help, there’s nothing quite so useful as seeing the things a real student has deemed important. Some reports have also shown that the students are the ones who admit they’re too easily distracted by a screen; why study chemistry when you can tap a button and check Facebook? Finally, students as young as elementary school have admitted something that too many adults might take for granted: they simply love to hold a book and read the “old-fashioned” way. Whether it’s better interaction, less eye strain, or simply nostalgia, they enjoy the feel of a traditional book.