What is a digital textbook?
A digital textbook is a textbook that is readable on a computer or tablet. There are many varieties of these digital textbooks and many companies offering them. Some digital texts are nothing more than a scanned image of a printed textbook. Some digital texts are very different from the printed textbook, including audio, video, hyperlinks and quizzes.
Companies offering digital texts include well-known names like Amazon — read your text on your Kindle — and new companies like Kno and Inkling. Even the publishing companies are getting into the act, creating digital versions of their books and systems in which to read them.
Are digital textbooks less or more expensive than paper textbooks?
Much of the hype around digital textbooks centers on the assertion that digital textbooks will be less expensive than paper textbooks. That is a difficult claim to sustain, however. Take this example: Amazon offers Campbell’s Biology, 9th Edition (in use in Biology 1113 and 1114 at OSU) new for $152, used for $104, while the campus bookstore offers it new for $208, used for $156. You can buy it for your Kindle at $97, as an eTextbook for $138 and rent it as an eTextbook for $92. But what about the resale? You could resell your paper version of the textbook for as much as $78, which means that potentially, if you bought the book used for $104 and sold it for $78, that you’ve spent $26 for the use of the textbook, far less than buying it digitally, for which there is no resale possibility. While digital textbooks may be less expensive than printed textbooks in some cases, it is not necessarily true universally.
What are the advantages or disadvantages of a digital textbook?
Along with the obvious weight advantage (no more lugging heavy biology books to class), the fact that the book is digital allows for nice features, like a search function, whose use is more efficient than that of an index. Some digital platforms, such as Inkling (see inkling.com) have rethought extensively the textbook experience: Students can click on a video link in The Art of Public Speaking to see a student give a speech or they can hear the voices of former slaves recorded by the WPA by clicking the audio link in Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty. In the Inkling version of Campbell’s Biology, students can rotate and zoom in on molecule structures; in a textbook on anatomy, they can test themselves on the skeletal system. In all of these books, end-of-chapter assessments help students pinpoint areas of understanding and confusion.
The disadvantages of digital textbooks include: Some faculty and students say digital text produces or exacerbates eyestrain. Also, digital textbooks must be made accessible to users with disabilities (some publishers and vendors do a better job of this than others). If the book is online, users must be online to read, which could be a problem if there are connectivity issues (though if a user can download the textbook, there should be no connectivity issues). Right now, about 3 to 4 percent of all books assigned at the university also are available digitally. When that number increases, what will be the impact on a university partner, the campus bookstore?
Finally, and most important, there have been few rigorous studies showing that students learn course material as well as, better than or worse than they do with a paper textbook. The added features of a digital textbook may lead to better comprehension, but it would be nice to have rigorous data around this point before committing to digital textbooks.