With two important factors on their side, accessibility and ability, it seems inevitable that the traditional college textbook industry will succumb to the ebb of technologyâ€™s tide and embrace the digital revolution. The popular belief is that publishers supply students with cheaper e-book versions of the textbooks their professors request.
However, e-books have a long way to go before they replace traditional college textbooks as a tool for student learning.
Nicole Allen, national campaign director of Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGâ€™s), said the e-book system is a flawed one. She is also currently involved with California Public Interest Research Group, an activist group that organizes college students to solve public interest problems.
Allen, who is currently on a national tour with Textbook Rebellion in a campaign to make textbooks affordable and accessible, said, â€œIn theory, the idea of digital textbooks is good, but you need to do it the right way.â€
The best way to fix the e-book system is to prioritize open-source textbooks, Allen said, which are books under a license that makes them available to the public and accessible online for free.
According to Allen, publishers can still make money on open-source textbooks in a variety of ways, including grant funding through the university or state, or by selling supplemental materials for the open-source textbooks.
But there arenâ€™t even enough e-textbooks to begin with, claimed officials from CampusBooks.com.
There is a significant lack of availability of e-book versions of the most popular textbooks on college campuses, said Jeff Cohen, CEO of CampusBooks.com.
Currently, not many textbooks are available as e-books in the Titan Shops bookstore, but more are becoming available every semester, said Text Adoptions Manager Mike Dickerson. CSUF gets e-books through Universal Digital Textbooks, an e-book vendor, he said.
Dickerson also said CSUF students rarely take advantage of the e-books the bookstore offers, saying, â€œif there are 100 students in the class, about 3 to 5 will buy the e-books.â€
CampusBooks.com, which serves as a search engine and third-party facilitator of textbooks sales between retailers and students, released results of an in-house study that explored whether or not popular textbooks were available as an e-book.
â€œWe started off with the hypothesis that while the movement toward e-books is growing, availability isnâ€™t there and the savings arenâ€™t as great,â€ said Cohen.
CampusBooks.com conducted three separate studies concerning the availability of e-books as well as their price, Cohen said.
The first two studies focused on the availability of e-books on the Amazon Kindle and then on every major e-book retailer. The results of the study showed that only one merchant on the market had an availability rate above 80 percent. The rest hovered somewhere around or below 40 percent.
Cohen also said e-book prices arenâ€™t as good as people believe them to be.
â€œThere are benefits to e-books and we are moving toward an e-society,â€ he said. â€œBut if you are concerned about price, right now is not the best time.â€
Allen subscribes to the same sentiment. Among other problems with e-books, she cites price as a determinant of whether or not e-books stand to replace traditional textbooks.
â€œPublishers are making so much money selling print versions of their textbooks that they donâ€™t want to undermine that model,â€ Allen said. â€œThese prices are not where they should be.â€
Allen also notes that publishers make it particularly difficult for students to shirk around paying for e-books by imposing restrictions that limit e-booksâ€™ ability to be shared. These restrictions include expiration dates and printing limits.
Alexis Abundis, a second-year history major, used an e-book last semester for her History 110B class. She was deterred from purchasing another e-book this semester because of other restrictions that the digital copy imposed, like not being able to highlight or write notes.
She said the opportunity to fully utilize e-books as a learning tool was impeded by its restrictions.
â€œWhen you have a page and you want to highlight it, you canâ€™t really do that. You need to print out the page and then highlight it. Itâ€™s just more reliable to have a textbook,â€ said Abundis.
One retailer who is taking steps to improve the way students interact with e-books is CourseSmart.
CourseSmart was the only retailer on Cohenâ€™s CampusBooks.com study with a textbook availability rate of over 80 percent.
CourseSmart also released a press release this July announcing the launch of its newest reader platform that allows students to use e-books like a regular textbook. Users can use e-books like textbooks with features like taking notes and highlighting, but can also use the more high-tech features like searching, pasting and printing.