Thinking Tech

88% of students opt for digital in eText pilot program

88% of students opt for digital in eText pilot program

Posting in Technology

88% of students chose digital textbooks over hard copies in a recent university study. But that doesn't mean they liked the experience.

In the recent eTextbook Sprint 2012 Pilot program [pdf link] conducted by the Internet2 organization, McGraw-Hill, software provider Courseload, and several universities, 88 percent of participating students chose to purchase a digital textbook over the hard-copy alternative.

You might think college students accustomed to laptops and iPads would choose electronic textbooks because of their comfort and familiarity with the medium. However, program surveys overwhelmingly pointed to another variable as the deciding factor: cost. In fact, many students reported that they saw little benefit to the electronic platform beyond the price differential. On a scale of one to five, here are the top reasons students said they would consider buying a digital textbook in the future:

  • Costs less than a used or rented traditional textbook (4.10)
  • Is more portable than traditional textbooks (3.82)
  • Is accessible without an Internet connection (3.47)
  • Is available for my entire academic career, not only for one semester (3.39)
  • Is more environmentally friendly than traditional textbooks (3.13)

What's more telling than the list of etextbook advantages is the list of barriers students cited after participating in the pilot program. Among them, readability, eyestrain, zooming difficulties, and a lack of interoperability across devices figured prominently. Students also reported that faculty did not make effective use of interactive etext features including highlights, annotations, and shared notes.

Given user interface issues, and the lack of teacher training that was noted in the summary report, it's perhaps not surprising that students were less than enthusiastic about etextbooks in the recent pilot program. However, with a UI makeover, it's quite possible the results of future tests could differ significantly. Apple announced its own "new textbook experience" with the unveiling of its iBooks 2 app for the iPad in January. Although the cost equation changes when Apple gets involved, so does the quality of the user experience. And that may be a requirement if etextbooks are going to gain further traction.

A broader Internet2 pilot implementation of etextbooks is planned for this fall. Spring participants included Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, Cornell University, and the University of Virginia.

UPDATE: Internet2 has posted new information here on the extended fall pilot program.

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure