The Problem with Digital Textbooks

The tools used by a modern college student have changed greatly since my parents attended college 30 years ago. Gone are the days of typewriters, encyclopedic research and stats tables. A majority of students are still taking notes on paper [^1] and we still us the same calculators we did 20 years ago [^2] but computers have become one of the most important tools for a students. Typewriters have been replaced by word processors, rows of books have been replaced by online resource databases and stats tables have been replaced by the STAT button on a calculator. Not only are computers replacing old technologies for student but they opening up new possibility as well.

The Current State of Things

Digital Textbooks have a lot of benefits. First and most obviously is the fact that traditional textbooks are big and heavily. Trying to take all your classes is almost impossible or would require two bags. Digital textbooks can always be with you if you carry a laptop or tablet with you to your classes anyways. Another benefit is that digital textbooks allow you to search the text, so if your looking for a definition you can quickly find it. The last major traditional benefit is the ability to have a quick overview of all notes or annotations.

Despite these benefits digital textbooks are still not widely adopted by students. Here are some reason why.

  • Digital textbooks cost the same or more than their print counterparts. The is not equivalent to used digital textbooks so this eliminates a cost saving technique used by many students. Renting a textbook digitally almost always costs more then renting the print version. There might be a good reason for this but from a students point of view it makes no sense.

  • Textbook purchases are tied to one company. If you buy your books from Amazon they will be available only within the Kindle app which still almost a year later does not support split view on the iPad. This means that if you want to write and look at your book at the same time you can not. Same goes for Chegg, Person and almost every other textbook distributor. Apple's iBooks app does support split view but good luck finding any of your textbooks in that store. So if you want to be able to work on a problems and look at your textbook at the same time there is really no option left.

The benefit of PDF

The reason that PDFs would be the dream formate for textbooks to be is that it allows for versatility. Anyone who has every worked in a group while studying knows that everyone has a different ways of organizing information. Some people are all about color coating passages with highlighters, some people love sticky notes to marking pages, some people are fans of scribbling notes in the margins and some people do all three. Getting digital textbooks in PDF form opens up the world of fantastic reader apps on iOS. Apps like PDF Expert which is very powerful and allows for all the traditional types of annotations a student would do with a print textbook. The benefit of digital textbooks however is that you don't have to stick to the traditionally possibilities. Apps likes LiquidText take the traditional types of annotating to the next level, giving the ability to pull out and compile all of these notes. For people who are auditory learners apps like Voice Dream Reader can make any textbook into a high quality audiobook. These are just three examples of the benefits of having textbooks in a standard that gives students choice.

The Problem with PDF

Here is the rub, it is impossible to legally acquire textbooks in PFD forms. This makes sense when you look at the current state of the textbook industry. If your company makes all of it's money selling textbooks you don't want to give them out in a form that can be easily copied and distributed. This has lead to the current state of digital textbooks described above. However the current state of things is not the best solution.

The Future

Looking into the future it is clear that digital textbooks are no wear near their final form. Colleges and schools are only getting more reliant on technology. What is the happy medium between offering textbooks in a way that allow all students to process textbooks in the way they learn best while still making the publishers satisfied? These the tentpole features for the future of digital textbooks.

  • Open Standard: Digital textbooks need to be distributed in a way that when a student purchase the book they have options about how they interact with it. As shown with the PDF form, when developers can innovate they create amazingly useful apps that no books seller would dream of. Everyone learns differently so allowing students to have textbook in a setting they are conferrable with can help greatly.

  • Protection of Intellectual Property: This extremely boring sounding bullet point is actually the most important and hardest to solve problem. The reason that currently all digital textbook exist only in subpar apps is that publishers need to protect their books from easy copying. The current way to do this is to never expose the buyer to the file but rather have them log into an account which is tied to there purchase. This is not a bad solution but there is not reason the account has to be tied to a specific companies app. Why can't the same log in process exist but not be tied to a single app, rather be a way to get files from with any app developed for the new textbook standard.

Closing Thoughts

Solving the digital textbook problem is not easy but it is a problem that is going to have to be solved. There are many benefits to digital textbooks. With a new generation of students currently working there way through the school system there is going to be demand. These students are more reliant and comfortable with technology that any that have come before them. The generation that comes after them will only continue the trend. The textbook industry is ready for a shakeup. It can't come soon enough.

[^1]: However some people including myself has started taking notes on laptops or tables. I am in a fairly technology friendly major so I would say we are right on the bleeding edge of this but about 10 students in my classes for 20-30 are taking notes this way.

[^2]: The TI-84 is still a great calculator which is pretty amazing since since it was introduced in 2004 and remains relatively unchanged to this day.