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Is this the end of the printed textbook?

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Tom Wilkie reports back on discussions about e-textbooks at the London Book Fair

The ‘digital shift’ is well underway in higher education as students and their teachers move away from printed to electronic textbooks and course materials, delegates to the London Book Fair were told on 18 March at a seminar ‘What Do Students Want? Sexing up the Textbook by Delivering it Electronically’.

By 2013, the market for digital course materials in the USA alone will be worth $1.93bn, according to figures from Simba Information, quoted by Fionnuala Duggan, managing director for CourseSmart International in the seminar. In addition, current predictions are that sales of tablet devices will outstrip laptops within the next year, she said, and students are a significant group among tablet buyers.

Duggan said that, although the USA was in the vanguard, the demand by students for one-stop electronic access to educational materials was growing rapidly on the other side of the Atlantic as well. CourseSmart had just opened an office in the UK to cater for the expected increase in European demand. The venture was originally set up in the USA in 2007 by some of the leading publishers in North American higher education to provide e-textbooks and digital learning tools to students and faculty. The main partners behind CourseSmart are Pearson; Cengage Learning; McGraw-Hill Education; Macmillan Higher Education; and John Wiley & Sons. It currently has more than 2.5million users and more than 20,000 e-textbooks.

The growth in e-books has also been seen in the uptake of the Ingram Group’s VitalSource, which now has about two million users, according to William Chesser of VitalSource Technologies.

But students who have not used e-books before don’t know what they want, said Chesser. He cited research comparing the preferences of ‘transitional students’ – those who were moving from print to electronic resources – against the preferences of those who had already made the transition. Electronic textbooks have now been around for long enough, he said, for there to be enough experienced students to make studies worthwhile.

Among the transitional students, the primary motivations for trying e-textbooks were, first, convenience and portability; and secondly, that they were less expensive. However, he said, ‘price disappears as a relevant factor’ among the more experienced group.

Portability remains the foremost consideration – e-books do away with the ‘chiropractor factor’ as students do not have to lug lots of books around with them, he said. But the interactivity of e-books ranks much more highly with students who have experience of using them. The ‘search’ function ranks second in priority with this group, and the ‘copy/paste’ options rank third. Chesser stressed that students expected a ‘print’ option to be available – if publishers are reluctant to allow students to print off pages of their e-books then ultimately they will not sell very many.

Both speakers stressed the need to provide students with a single point of entry to their virtual learning environment (VLE), no matter what hardware the student was using to access it. Indeed any one user would want to access the VLE using multiple hardware platforms – including mobile phones – without having to re-enter passwords or use different passwords to access different materials. Everything has to be in one place.