Anna Sharratt / September 7 2010 / 3:30 PM ET
Students' backpacks could eventually become a whole lot lighter, thanks to the slowly increasing popularity of e-textbooks in Canada and their availability on electronic readers, smartphones and e-tablets.
With the advent of Amazon's e-reader Kindle, the Apple iPad, iPod and iPhone and the Kobo eReader, the potential for e-textbooks to revolutionize higher learning is significant, say analysts. These products have the ability to store hundreds of e-books, allowing students to simply click through material in textbooks without lugging them to class.
Slow Growth For Electronic Textbooks
Some e-textbooks, essentially downloadable files of hardcover textbooks that can be viewed online or printed, have been around for almost a decade. They offer students a lower-priced option to hardcover books, as well as viewing flexibility — if students have computer access.
Sold online or in campus bookstores via a pre-paid card with an access number and password, they can be accessed for a semester or school year. But the subscription eventually expires and there is no book to resell to a store or another student, Mark Lefebre, operations manager at McMaster University's Titles bookstore in Hamilton, told CBC News.
E-textbooks can offer an interactive learning experience that hardcover books simply can't deliver, says Lefebre.
Many participating publishers — such as McGraw Hill Canada, Wiley Canada, Pearson Education Canada and Nelson Education — offer students the ability to ask questions, provide interactive diagrams and offer pop quizzes to enhance studying. [snip]
U.S. Taking Idea To Next Level
South of the border, pilot programs involving e-textbooks and handheld devices are picking up steam, though they're still in early days. Some companies, such as CourseSmart, which sells 10,000 e-textbooks online, has developed an iPad app, allowing its material to be viewed via the device.
And a U.S. firm called Inkling offers several e-textbooks that come with the ability to interact with a professor, highlight passages and make notes. [snip]
To date, the company offers just four e-textbooks with these enhanced features, though it plans to increase its offerings in the coming year.
In Canada, the functionality certainly exists — though e-textbooks haven't quite made the leap to handhelds. [snip].
Tom Stanton, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education in New York, says the market is ripe. "Our e-book sales represent a small percentage of our higher-education revenue, but that percentage is growing dramatically each year," he says.
Stanton says McGraw-Hill offers about 95 per cent of its textbooks as e-textbooks and it is testing e-book reading devices including the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Sony Reader, EnTourage and others.
"Our content is also available via MP3 players, iPhone apps, classroom management systems and a range of online supplemental materials," he says
Are Students Ready?
While companies seek to develop better and more accessible e-textbooks and applications that make them more user-friendly, there is some debate as to whether students are ready for them.
Some, like Long Nguyen, a computer science at Toronto's York University, says they can be a great way to reduce one's "environmental footprint,"... .
But booksellers report that the demand for regular hardcover textbooks is still strong because students want a tactile entity — and a source of information they can use without logging onto a computer.
"There still seems to be a bit of a preference for studying from a hardcover," says Lefebre. Meaghan Leonard, an art history student at Carleton University in Ottawa, agrees.
E-textbooks also present certain challenges — such as how to save content when the device powering it malfunctions. As well, at a time when tuition fees are surging, many students feel the sting of buying expensive technological devices such as e-tablets and readers.
And then there are the headaches of charging e-reader batteries and spending time downloading large textbook files.