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Students in Library

Digital Textbooks, Part 1: The State of the Market

  • March 22, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

The Future May Be Digital, But Paper Textbooks are Proving Hard to Put Down

This is part one of a two-part series.

There’s no denying the unstoppable reach and increasing sophistication, connectivity, and richness of digital media. The most avid consumers, to no one’s surprise, are school-age children, or teens and tweens. “Screen time” for these groups is alarming to many. According to Common Sense, an education-focused advocacy organization:

“American teenagers (13- to 18-year-olds) average about nine hours of entertainment media use, excluding time spent at school or for homework. Tweens (8- to 12-year-olds) use an average of about six hours’ worth of entertainment media daily.”

That “reach” also extends into K-12 and college classrooms around the world. Teachers are generally eager to leverage digital content—from virtual field trips to online videos—to enhance learning experiences and delivery methods. Yet, perhaps the most fundamental and traditional learning tool, the tried and true textbook, has proven difficult to replace, especially in K-12.

Its would-be replacements, from comprehensive interactive digital textbooks to simpler eBooks, have gained some ground in recent years. Still though, they are by and large viewed as an unfulfilled promise.

While, according to the Association of American Publishers, eBook sales in general (think Amazon Kindle) have risen 45 percent since 2011 and even outsell print versions in many segments, within the educational ecosystem, adoption has been slow. Only about 11 percent of college students have bought e-textbooks, according to market research firm Student Monitor and the New Media Consortium’s 2014 Horizon Report (K-12 Edition) indicated an even slower penetration into K-12.

Reasons for the slow adoption include limited availability of titles, limited ability to resell most digital textbooks, and the digital storage requirements, particularly for mobile devices, which typically have little memory to spare. Even more importantly, most digital textbooks fail to live up to their full potential. Interactive media, social sharing features, collaboration tools, and other worthwhile features are available to students on cloud productivity tools and apps, but nowhere to be found when perusing the pages of most digital textbooks.

Despite the varying use cases and needs between higher education and K-12, the motivations for pursuing the promise of digital textbooks do overlap. Considerations that are consistent for both realms of education include the growing cost of paper textbooks, prevalence of student tablets and laptops, and increasing use of other technology in the classroom.

Many believe a full conversion is only a matter of time. Although it’s easy for schools to hold tightly to the tradition of tangible text, there is evidence that it might not always make sense. What might cause tradition to teeter over the edge? Price. According to The Horizon Report, the “financial and educational benefits of digital learning materials will eventually outweigh the outdated paper textbook dependence.”

Statistics support their case. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college textbook prices have indeed inflated—by a shocking 1,041 percent. The Government Accountability Office adds to that concern, citing that prices have risen 82 percent in the last decade alone. How much does that add up to for students? According to a recent College Board report, university students typically spend as much as $1,200 a year on textbooks.

Students are a vulnerable population, or as Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition calls them, “captive consumers.” Long story short, publishers leave them with little choice but to fit hefty bills—assigned books are necessities. Washington has taken notice, with Congress recently proposing the Affordable College Textbook Act and the U.S. Department of Education launching a #GoOpen campaign.

Beyond dollars and cents, the siren song of digital media content and platforms would seem to offer a transformational upside for education. A future favoring digital media assets has a lot to offer, including pertinent digital media assets that enhance learning initiatives, unique tools that engage learners, and the capability for teachers to use data to track performance of individuals and classes.

What will the future look like exactly? Despite these significant financial pressures and seemingly indisputable experiential, connectivity, and efficacy benefits, the race between paper textbooks and digital textbooks is, for now, still a close one. Big changes, including the fact that McGraw-Hill Education’s “digital content and online programs surpassed print sales for the first time last year,” as confirmed by The Columbus Dispatch, though, raise the question: How long can print keep up?


1. “Four Common Objections to Digital Textbooks” Ed Surge. December 5 2015.
2. “Amplifying the Digital Textbook” Ed Surge. March 3 2014.
3. “The Promise (and Perils) of Digital Textbooks” The Journal. October 28 2015.
4. “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977” NBC News. August 6 2015.
5. “The Death of Textbooks?” The Atlantic. March 6 2015.
6. “The Future of Textbooks” Think with Google. December 2012.
7. “5 Reasons Why eBooks Are Not The Future of Education” Junction. February 13 2015.
8. “Will the Classroom of the Future Be eBook Driven?” Insight. February 10 2015.
9. “Sorry, Ebooks. These 9 Studies Show Why Print Is Better” HuffPost Books. February 27 2015.
10. “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Teens and Tweens” Common Sense Media. November 3 2015.
11. “Global eBook” Rüdiger Wischenbart Content & Consulting. 2014.
12. “Digital sales outpaced print at McGraw-Hill Education” The Columbus Dispatch. March 9 2016.