most e-textbooks will probably never look like the demonstrations

Which isn’t, I’ll hasten to say, a big problem.

Last week, I was invited to a bull session about a new, tablet-based ebook version of a writing textbook. The publisher had asked the authors to get creative with brainstorming; they feel, as do the authors, that e-textbooks have not really begun to explore the possibilities of the form. Most e-textbooks that I have seen are still essentially .PDF versions of the usual text. Perhaps for this reason, students have not really shown a great deal of enthusiasm for the form. We were tasked with coming up with ideas for better integrating other functionality into the e-text than just reading and notation.

Here’s the takeaway from the meeting, for me: most e-textbooks are unlikely to resemble those super-impressive demonstrations that Apple and others have put together.

It’s impossible to say for sure now, of course. But I was struck by the situation: a very popular and successful textbook, published by one of the biggest textbook publishers in the industry, was being converted to an ebook under the specific auspices of doing more with the form. And yet the representative there was straightforward: they couldn’t afford to do a lot of that “rotating brain,” interactive 3D modeling, or similar stuff. Not that you necessarily would for a writing textbook, of course. I just think it’s important that we be a little bit skeptical of the models and promotional materials that companies like Apple put out there. In order for e-textbooks to really take off, they’ve got to be competitive on price, particularly since there is such a large used textbook market out there. And as fun as it is to rotate that brain model, when you don’t have the budget of a marketing and development team at a company like Apple, but instead are trying to make the numbers work on the margins of textbook publishing, those bells and whistles go out the window pretty fast. In fact, most of what we discussed for this particular textbook involved taking existing app functionality and porting it into the ebook framework. Useful, and important, but not impressive.

Of course, that’s not to say that I’m opposed to e-textbooks, and they’ll be a large portion of the market in the coming decade. Physical books will probably keep a firm grip on a portion as well. Ultimately, for e-textbooks of the bells and whistles variety to take off, they’ll have to accomplish what none of these digital learning technologies has consistently done: demonstrate empirically-verifiable student advantages over traditional pedagogical tools.


  1. For me, the main current use of ebooks is that they allow full text searching. That can be really handy, particularly in technical works.

    I’d think that with much in the way of bells and whistles, the textbooks could probably help with quizzes. They could track where students were having trouble and highlight relevant sections from the reading or the like.

    I could also see syllabus integration being fairly useful. You could go through a calendar rather than the table of contents when making sure that you were up-to-date with the readings.

    None of that is particularly shiny, so it fits your model I’d think.

  2. Those are exactly the kind of features that we were talking about. Useful, just not sexy. Which is okay, because the graphic designers and programmers needed to make something sexy are too expensive anyway.

  3. I remember the immense disappointment that was the Microsoft Encarta, back when we got our first CD-ROM drive. Everyone said it would have, you know, everything on it–video, audio, everything ever in history. There was space now! It was a CD-ROM! But really it had, like, one line from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and a couple of tiny crappy 2-D animations of Newton’s Laws.

  4. It seems that e-books will completely eliminate the secondary text book market, which ought to enable much higher production costs while maintaining or even lowering the price on new text books.

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