Students Still Not Taking to E-Textbooks, New Data Show

studentsDespite the benefits of lower costs, lighter backpacks, added features and convenience, students just aren’t taking to e-textbooks, a new study shows.

About 6% of students are using a “core digital textbook” as their main course material, according to a new study from the Book Industry Study Group, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of four-year and two-year college students during the fall 2012 academic semester for the third year for its Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education report. This number is unchanged from the same period a year ago.

At the same time, there are signs that students are migrating away from print textbooks. In 2012, just under 60% of students used the core physical textbook for their coursework, down from just under 70%. Around four of five students bought, rented or borrowed a used physical textbook for their coursework, down from over 90%.

“The college student today is in the early stages of a migration, but it’s a mystery because we really don’t know where this migration is going to end up,” said Len Vlahos, executive director of BISG, who delivered the data in a presentation at the Making Information Pay for Higher Education conference in New York today, adding, “it’s not going to be done in a two-or-three year period — this is a longer trend.”

While students may not be adopting e-textbooks, they are taking to what higher education publishing insiders are calling “integrated learning systems” (ILS), which are online learning platforms that include course materials, study groups and other interactive and social features. About 14% of students are using ILS for their coursework. Perhaps most importantly, students say that ILS help them improve their grades more than both physical textbooks and e-textbooks.

One piece of good news for publishers of higher education materials that want to expand to publishing more e-textbooks is the adoption of digital devices among students. Most students have a desktop or laptop computer and a third now have tablet computers — double the percentage who did this time last year. The dark cloud to this silver lining is that less than 5% of students currently use tablets as their primary study device.

Another piece of good news for publishers is that e-textbook piracy is not a big problem at this point. About 10% of students say they have acquired their course materials — both physical and e- — illicitly in some way (though some 30% to 40% of students say that they know someone who has pirated materials, Vlahos said, suggesting that students may not be wholly honest about their own piracy). One of the main drivers of piracy may be price: Students are less likely to pirate course materials when their parents are paying for them.

On the digital side, piracy may be less of a problem than on the print side, according to another presentation later in the Making Information Pay program.

“The vast majority of ebook [ebook course materials] are purchased and not downloaded for free, borrowed from libraries or copies from friends and family,” said Joe Karaganis, vice president of the American Assembly at Columbia University and editor of the 2011 book Media Piracy in Emerging Economies.

About 85% of students acquire their e-textbooks by buying them legally, he said, adding, “this is an incredibly legal market.”

But as the market matures and students get more used to stripping digital rights management software and sharing files — relatively easy things to do that many students may not be completely familiar or comfortable with yet — piracy could become a bigger problem, said Karaganis.

14 thoughts on “Students Still Not Taking to E-Textbooks, New Data Show

  1. Edward Smith

    Text book publishers are indeed in trouble if my experience is common. I put all course notes with photos, videos, music files – formatted on my Mac (drag & drop) – I have an optional print text book which a tiny percentage buy – typically two out of a class if 60. I also link to my blog, a specialized Facebook page and prezis. I have been asking reps for interactive multimedia texts for a few years now. Well they have missed the boat.

  2. J J Madden

    What I’ve noticed is that college educators often prepare \packets\ of printouts that students buy at the campus bookstore as their \textbook.\ Any number of publishing platforms could help teachers streamline this process. Keep in mind that kids like their laptops and phones – so better develop for those instead of tablets.

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  4. Ross

    With publishers rolling out such crappy interfaces, it’s no wonder students aren’t interested. My encounters with digital text books have been dismal. They were as flat and static as a 1990s HTML webpage, they offered only rudimentary tools to navigate or annotate content, and text was constrained inside of tiny viewing windows surrounded by cluttered, complicated tool bars. I use webpages and apps on a daily basis are slick, attractive, and intuitive, why would I expect less from an e-book? Especially when I can often purchase a used print edition for a few bucks?

    1. Mel

      This, is the main reason I stick to physical books when it comes to textbooks. I’m a college student and when I read for pleasure I do it on my e-reader. I also do buy (if available) the e-book version of whichever books are required for my Lit classes. But when it comes to the rest of the classes I prefer to stick to the physical copy. It’s far easier to flip between chapters without loosing your mind during class when your psychology professor wants to compare different theories. I tried it once, gave up completely and bought the book.

      1. Claude Nougat

        Totally agree with these views. I’m not a college student (that was a long time ago!) and I can only offer my experience as a reader of serious non-fiction. I hate the e-versions because it’s impossible to annotate them the way I’ve done all my life on my physical books and it’s impossible to flip through chapters. As long as non-fiction e-books are so clunky (and of course that includes textbooks), there’s no hope for them to win the digital race!

  5. Sean Wakely

    I think the study may be missing the point in focusing so narrowly on “e-books.” There are hints the researchers are on the right track when they refer to integrated experiences or comprehensive solutions that leverage content to bring the learning experience to new and interactive levels. The narrative content or what I interpret the study is calling the “e-book”, even if it is deconstructed to some degree, should simply be a component within an overall digital learning solution. A plain, old ebook, as noted by other commenters, is not necessarily an improvement if it’s simply a printed work conveyed via a digital medium.

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  7. Book Designer

    As with any new technology USE rules and if the etextbook or tablet or program interface whatever is not useful it won’t make it until problems are solved. Gotta get the teachers to learn how to teach with technology in mind as well as getting the technology to work in a way that it will benefit both student and teacher. And the author of the book needs to understand the interfaces enough to make suggestions on how best to teach and fulfill the use. As far as stealing… technology again.

  8. Pingback: Students Still Not Taking to E-Textbooks, New Data Show | Ebooks

  9. 3D Issue

    eBooks need to move to a more social or open format. I think that etext book publishers are still locking down content so there is no way for the student to marry this content with online research. These digital editions might have cool new animation and additional resources but there is no way that they could encapsulate the type of benefits that students could get from marrying this content with online resources that are available outside of those apps. More openiness and collaborative functionality needs to be integrated into these adds

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