Sunday, March 3, 2013

An Interview with David Levin > E-Textbook Sales are Lagging, and Maybe This is Why

By: Bill Buchanan

E-textbooks. Hybrid and online courses. Using learner analytics to assess experiments that involve academic technology. The future of SmartSite.

These are a few of the areas that David Levin intends to discuss, and address, as director of Academic Technology Services for Information and Educational Technology.


Another important initiative we’re going to think about this year, and the next year or so, is e-text and e-content.

E-books have taken off. Some publishers announced last year that their e-sales had outpaced their physical sales. In other cases it’s well over 30 percent. On the other hand, e-textbook sales are lingering around 1 or 2 percent of the sales of textbooks.

What can we do about that here?

Good question. I think that’s going to change. We need to think about whether we want to change that, how we can change that, what are the stumbling blocks, and what are the models to make it work.

One reason why it hasn’t changed yet, maybe, is that it’s not high stakes. If I read my latest novel or something online, rather than in print, it’s easier for me to access, it isn’t necessarily tied to a particular device—there are all kinds of advantages.

Now look at the learning space. A lot of work has been done on understanding how students read a textbook. It involves teaching people how to find, highlight and annotate the important parts of a textbook.

How well people read things is important to how well they do.

We’ve done a lot with the textbook, to help students read textbooks well, with images and tables put on a page so that they can understand the concepts. We’ve designed our physical textbooks really well. Maybe a problem in moving to an e-textbook world is, how do we make sure we design the e-textbook for learning success?

The point is, we’re very good at showing people how to use physical textbooks, and maybe that format doesn’t translate easily to e-text?

I’m not sure. I guess I’m saying yes. We have to be very cognizant—as we think how to move to an e-textbook world, and why it’s going slowly—that we are very, very concerned that our students succeed in their learning. The move to an e-text world is a cultural shift, and we have to design things so they will lead to student success.

I believe that e-texts actually hold the promise for greater learning than physical textbooks, but we have to think carefully about it.

Some of the early results are mixed. At California State University, Northridge, we started some studies with e-texts, and frankly, in the early data, the students who were engaging the e-text were not doing as well as the students were engaging with the physical text.

If you open a well-designed textbook, it’s so different from a novel. A novel is a bunch of words in an order. A textbook has tables, inserts about cases, and all kinds of things. I think you could make an e-textbook even better.

In a physical textbook, you can imbed an image, even a beautiful glossy image. In an e-textbook, you can imbed a video, or a link to the author explaining something. And it can be designed so that the student can dig down as deep as they want, or where they want. You can almost make it a find-your-own-textbook, or find-your-own-adventure-through-the-textbook, or things like that.

There lots of ways that it can be better, but we haven’t found them yet. We need to work on finding them.


The textbook, like any text in a sense, is a very individual and isolating thing. As I’m reading this chemistry text, I need to learn the important points. There are all kinds of clues. I have to figure out what is worth that yellow highlighter, and what annotations are valuable.

With an e-text, especially a network-based e-text, you can make it a social environment, so that I can ask people in my class what the problems are. It can be designed so the instructor can look in and see, if the students are willing, what problems the students are having.

It could take on the qualities of a wiki.

A wiki, a discussion board, all kinds of different things. It can take on ‘phone-a-friend’—you could have a tool so that a student who is having problems with a particular portion can ask the instructor or a TA. They can send a question to anyone in the class, anyone in the university, anyone reading the book. If the textbook is being used enough, chances are other people are reading this very passage at this very time. Can I send out a message to all of them, saying, ‘I didn’t get this’?

That not only helps the person who is asking the question—the other student in New York who is reading that, and believes they understand it well, will understand it even better if they explain it to somebody else.

Is this discussion about e-texts one you want to have on campus?

Oh yeah. It’s tied in to so many of the areas we’ve been talking about. I think where we want to go with e-text is critical. We’ve got to learn how to do it, and there are significant challenges in our thinking about how to do it.

I imagine you welcome faculty who want to talk with you about all this?


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