[Paleopsych] CHE: Online Textbooks Fail to Make the Grade

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Online Textbooks Fail to Make the Grade
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.11

[I'm taking my annual Lenten break from forwarding articles again this 
year. It's a vice to spend so much time doing this. So I'll be off the air 
for forty days and forty nights from Ash Wednesday until Easter.]

    Students prefer handling pages the old-fashioned way
    Richmond, Va.

    While buying books for her marketing class this fall, Caitlyn F.
    Atwood, a senior at the University of Richmond, found herself a little
    low on cash, having already shelled out $500 for books for other
    courses. When she heard about an option to buy her textbook for half
    price -- an electronic edition that can only be read online -- she
    decided to try it.

    "I regret that," she says bluntly, sitting outside of her marketing
    class after a two-hour test. "With my other books I can go to the
    library, but with this I always have to be in front of a screen." And
    she has found that it is not always easy to find an available computer
    during crucial points in the semester, like right before midterms and

    Online textbooks are in their infancy, but Ms. Atwood's experience,
    other anecdotal evidence, and at least one survey suggest that
    publishers might have their work cut out for them as they push for a
    switch from print to pixels.

    In the past year, several major publishers have started promoting
    online versions of their textbooks, available for sale directly to
    students through the Internet. Publishers say that online textbooks
    offer conveniences, like text-searching tools, that students today are
    accustomed to using. And authors can quickly and easily produce new or
    updated editions of textbooks without having to wait for a print run.

    Moreover, publishers say, cheaper online versions are a response to
    the growing dissatisfaction of consumer advocates and students with
    the high cost of textbooks. But some consumer advocates say online
    textbooks are no bargain, and that students give up a great deal of
    freedom in going digital because of the many restrictions publishers
    put on e-books, such as use of copy-protection software.

    And when it comes to textbooks, many in the digital generation have
    old-fashioned tastes: Ms. Atwood and others say that online editions
    might be a useful supplement to paper versions, but there's nothing
    like being able to open a book and study -- even when there are no
    computers or power outlets around.

    "If I had the paper book, the online version would have been a good
    tool," Ms. Atwood says, noting that she would have used it, for
    instance, to look up definitions of words. Being chained to the
    computer, though, was not only an inconvenience but an impediment.
    "You tend to be distracted by the Internet," she says, "so I had to
    stay focused."

    e-Book Strategies

    With the rise of distance-education programs and online course
    materials, publishers seem to be betting that students will soon
    prefer online books, and are increasing their electronic output.

    Three major textbook publishers -- Pearson, Thomson, and McGraw-Hill
    -- announced new online textbook programs last year, all billed as
    cheaper alternatives to paper.

    In February 2004, Thomson announced its Advantage Series, which
    includes e-textbooks offered at half the price of paper books. Susan
    K. Badger, chief executive officer of Thomson Higher Education, says
    sales of the e-books have not been robust so far, but her company is
    preparing for a day when students prefer electronic texts. "We all
    feel like we need to be ready when the tipping point comes," she says.

    Pearson's program, called SafariX, has added about 300 online books to
    its catalog since announcing the program in April, and officials plan
    to have 1,000 available by the end of the year. (The company didn't
    start selling the books until September.)

    Since 2000, McGraw-Hill had been in the business of producing custom
    electronic books, cobbled together from articles and chapters of
    books, for specific classes and at the request of individual
    professors. In June, the company began producing electronic versions
    of its best-selling textbooks. It has about 200 books available for
    sale directly to students, and is adding 10 electronic books to its
    catalog every week.

    Because books are prepared in electronic form before they go to press,
    putting them online is relatively easy, says Ginny Moffat, the vice
    president of course content delivery for McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
    "In fact, some of our books are online before they are printed," she
    says. Meanwhile, some smaller textbook publishers have also gone

    Atomic Dog Publishing, a small textbook company that published the
    marketing textbook used in Ms. Atwood's class, has a different
    business model: a hybrid of ink and bytes. Every paper textbook
    published by Atomic Dog -- which costs about half as much as
    comparable titles from major publishers -- comes with access to a free
    online version as a supplement. Students like Ms. Atwood can save even
    more by buying only the online version, but just 20 percent of Atomic
    Dog's customers take that option.

    Atomic Dog was started five years ago amid the euphoria of soaring
    Internet stocks and whiz-pow marketing strategies. Technology "was the
    golden calf that everyone danced around," says Mark A. Greenberg,
    chairman and CEO of Atomic Dog. A former vice president at mainstream
    publishing firms including HarperCollins and Prentice Hall, he was
    brought in to reorganize the Internet company and refocus it on
    selling old-fashioned content and paper, not just passwords.

    "We learned that you could beam this stuff from Jupiter, and if the
    content wasn't wanted by instructors, they weren't going to buy it,"
    he says.

    Mixed Reviews

    Online textbooks combine the features of books, search engines, and
    course-management software like Blackboard and WebCT. Some online
    books are delivered as documents that users download to their
    computers, and some exist only on the Internet.

    Ms. Atwood logs into her marketing textbook from a Web browser with a
    user name and password. While reading the body of the text, she might
    come across a keyword highlighted in blue -- clicking on that, she
    brings up a definition in a window. In addition, by typing terms into
    a search box, she can quickly find chapters that mention those terms.

    The book includes photographs and diagrams, like any textbook would,
    but it also has animations and links to resources on the World Wide
    Web. As when using paper books, students can highlight portions of the
    text, add bookmarks to selected pages, or add notes about the reading.

    Each week Ms. Atwood's instructor, Dana-Nicoleta Lascu, an associate
    professor of marketing, assigns an online quiz through the textbook
    site. By logging into her own Atomic Dog account, Ms. Lascu can then
    track the progress of her students and alter her lectures as needed.

    Ms. Lascu, as it happens, is also the author of the marketing textbook
    used in her course. She says she found Atomic Dog after a book
    proposal with a mainstream publisher stalled. She was intrigued by the
    idea of publishing online -- enough to work with a small publisher.
    "It was a risk I was willing to take," she says.

    Thomas N. Duening, the director of entrepreneurial programs at Arizona
    State University, also sought out Atomic Dog because he and a
    co-author wanted to try publishing an online textbook. Mr. Duening is
    downright euphoric about online textbooks, going so far as to say that
    paper books, which have been around for hundreds of years, are a
    "passing fad."

    "In the near future, there is no way you can get away from offering
    things online," he says. "Kids today are learning to read online,
    learning to interact online. ... We're looking at where things are

    The future of online textbooks, however, is far from assured.
    Publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson would not discuss sales of
    online textbooks, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the current
    crop of college students are not jumping to buy them.

    Robert Collinge, a professor of economics at the University of Texas
    at San Antonio, is the author of a macroeconomics textbook that is
    featured online through Pearson's SafariX program. At the request of
    The Chronicle, he polled his students through an online discussion
    board: Have you bought, or would you ever consider buying, an online
    textbook for this course?

    Of the 20 students who responded, most said they weren't interested.
    "I refuse to buy an online textbook," wrote one student in a typical
    reply. "I prefer to have an actual hard copy of the book on hand to
    read whenever I want."

    Matthew I. Kyne, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, was
    one of the few in Mr. Collinge's class who bought an online version.
    He had downloaded it to his laptop, and he said he liked it. But his
    motivations were unusual: He rides his bike 20 miles to campus every
    day. "If I don't have to carry a book, that's great," he says. "I
    would do it again for this type of class, but not for a physics class
    or a math class, where you have to work on problems out of the book.
    But if you are just reading, it's fine."

    Slow to Catch On

    Last year the National Association of College Stores released results
    of a survey of more than 4,000 students at 21 campuses across the
    country. Among students polled, 73 percent preferred buying textbooks
    in a traditional format, while only 11 percent preferred electronic

    "Generally, our research shows that students seem to be very slow in
    embracing this," says Laura Nakoneczny, a spokeswoman for the
    association. However, she adds that electronic materials are used more
    frequently in elementary and secondary schools. "It could be that
    today's students, who were educated using traditional textbooks,
    aren't really embracing electronic books because the format is not
    familiar to them," she says. "And it could be that up-and-coming
    students could embrace them."

    But the association's study revealed habits among college students
    that could make marketing electronic books difficult. The study found
    that only 43 percent of students buy all of the required books for
    their courses. Many students borrow textbooks from a classmate or from
    a friend who has taken the class in the past. And more than 45 percent
    of the students surveyed said they keep their books for future
    reference, and among engineering, vocational, and science majors, as
    many as 60 percent save their books.

    Unlike paper books, many electronic books cannot be given to friends,
    sold to used-textbook dealers, or kept on shelves for later reading.
    Passwords for some online books expire within a year, and publishers
    have devised various mechanisms that prevent students from sharing
    passwords with friends or swapping downloaded versions of books on,
    say, peer-to-peer networks.

    For example, a downloadable electronic book published by McGraw-Hill
    "locks" itself to the computer on which it is installed. So a student
    who downloads a textbook to a dorm-room computer will not be able to
    read the book on computers at the library or at his or her parents'
    house. McGraw-Hill's online versions of books have limited numbers of
    "page views" -- that is, a reader can look at the pages of a book only
    so many times, generally four times the number of pages in the book.
    So in a 100-page book, a reader can look at one page 400 times, say,
    or all the pages four times.

    "We arrived at that figure after talking with professors," Ms. Moffat
    says. "They said, read it once, study for a mid-term, study for a
    final, and read it one more time. Four ought to be ample."

    But consumer advocates, who have rallied students to protest high
    prices on textbooks, find the intellectual-property protections on
    online books too limiting, even for a cheaper price tag.

    Compared with paper books, "you're giving up substantial numbers of
    rights in return for paying half the price," says Edmund M.
    Mierzwinski, the consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest
    Research Group, a nonprofit watchdog group.

    "Heck, I would look at the page a lot more than four times if it were
    important," he says. "I think that's an extreme restriction on

    No More Used Books?

    If electronic books catch on, Mr. Mierzwinski sees several advantages
    for publishers at the expense of consumers. "There will be no used
    digital books," he says. "So you're completely eliminating the
    used-book market and that form of competition."

    He says the move to digital will give publishers "a lot more control
    over the marketplace."

    "Once they control the market, once they have completely eliminated
    the secondary market, and once they have got students renting their
    books, what's going to stop them from raising the prices?" he asks.

    April Hattori, a spokeswoman for McGraw-Hill, says that students can
    always print pages that they want to archive. She adds that many
    students sell their books at the end of the semester, which is
    "equivalent" to subscribing to a book for a limited time.

    But the limitations of online textbooks could keep them from catching
    on in a major way, critics say.

    During the fall hurricane season, those limitations became clear in
    Ms. Lascu's class. The University of Richmond lost power for several
    days during one storm, and the handful of students in her class who
    had bought electronic books could not study for an upcoming test. Ms.
    Lascu changed the test to an open-book exam, and for the test, some of
    those students borrowed books owned by their peers.

    Mussie Assefaw, a junior who bought a paper version of Ms. Lascu's
    book, says he mainly reads the paper version but frequently refers to
    the online version to seek out key marketing terms or watch an
    animated graphic. His friend, Daniel B. Kim, who bought an online
    version, frequently borrows the paper version.

    Mr. Greenberg, of Atomic Dog, says that he is interested in using the
    online versions of his books for marketing leverage -- as a supplement
    and enhancement to paper textbooks, not the main attraction. He
    believes that is where the textbook market as a whole is going.

    "I think in the future you'll see some combination of classic print
    with digital resources," he says. "The real value of digitization is
    the interactivity, not the readability. ... It's silly to think that
    the book, as a printed item, is going to go away."

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