In American higher education, the textbook remains a foundational source of academic material, but their rising cost has been a hot topic in recent years. Prices have increased 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, now costing students an average of $1200 per year. The amount that students spend on course materials has recently declined, but only because the inflated expense drives students to sometimes avoid purchasing textbooks altogether. Recent governmental steps have been taken to increase the affordability of materials, such as the House of Representatives call for a program to utilize digital textbooks.
Over half of American college students have used an eTextbook in their studies, but only around 3% of textbook sales in the United States are digital. Institutional adoption of eTextbooks is low in the United States, as only 5% are broadly deploying them. Adoption in the United States is typically limited to pilots or individual faculty.
Why do these underwhelming trends exist? First, research on the user experience reveals mixed findings. Students appreciate the cost and portability but often experience issues with usability, device choice, and distractibility. In addition, reading digitally demands a different set of skills than printed texts, such as negotiating the text in a non-linear fashion and skillfully annotating. Instructors are not usually trained to support students in this way, and may assume that students already have these skills. On a technical level, there is no universal access eTextbooks and they come in all varieties: PDF and interactive; free and with cost; tablets and computers; available at the college bookstore and online. This fragmented landscape is often confusing for instructors when selecting resources. For these reasons and others, the preference for print remains in the United States.
Some exceptions are emerging to illuminate the digital landscape in the United States. Indiana University has an eTexts initiative program that partners with many publishers with the objective of driving down material costs, giving faculty access to high quality materials, developing new tools for teaching and learning, and shaping the terms of eTexts models. Boise State University offers an eTextbook Authoring Bootcamp, encouraging instructors to create their own digital books and share them freely with students. At our university, newly formed degree programs such as Integrated Business are interested in forgoing textbooks altogether and instead focusing on dynamic collections of online materials. To accomplish this, instructional designers and librarians are collaborating with instructors to create these repositories of various multimedia resources. The University of Maryland University College plans to eliminate textbooks and instead opt for open educational resources.
Several measures need to be addressed in order for this landscape to broaden in the United States. First, universities often enter legal agreements with external bookstores (such as Barnes and Noble). These contracts are often ironclad, with the bookstore being regarded as the “exclusive seller of digital materials.” These materials are often marked up 30%, higher than new or used print books. It is important that universities have the freedom to pursue and offer any educational materials that will benefit their teachers and learners. In addition, the role of the instructor is crucial. Instructors need training in supporting students to read digitally, and they need to learn how to model best practices as well. Support staff like librarians and instructional designers are helpful in this endeavor. Finally, research on the effectiveness of digital texts must be conducted and shared in order to gain support from university and instructors.
Aimee deNoyelles, Instructional Designer, University of Central Florida