Friday, June 17, 2011

When technology trends (and textbooks) collide...

There have been a couple interesting studies out lately involving textbooks and tablets. A classic collision of technology trends as mobile devices and digital content converge among college students.

A few weeks ago we wrote about the study by the Pearson Foundation. Among some of the interesting quotes:

[W]hile 55 percent of students still prefer print over digital textbooks, among the 7 percent of students who own tablets devices like iPads, 73 percent prefer digital textbooks. With 70 percent of college students interested in owning a tablet, and 15 percent saying they plan to buy one in the next six months, the survey suggests that there may be a coming rise in the e-textbook market.

These findings are interesting on several points. First is the declining preference among students for print over digital -- dropping from 75% (widely found in a number of studies) down to 55% in the past 6 months. However, the preference of print over digital more than flips when you look at students with a tablet device -- with 73% of those students prefering digital to print.

Unless one wants to believe that this is just an abberation among early adopters, this week, a new study conducted at Abilene Christian University appeared in Campus Technology. Independent from the prior study, this study found similar preference for digital over print even among individuals exposed to a tablet for as little as three weeks. An interesting quote from this piece:

“After trying an iPad for a short period—about three weeks—three out of four college freshmen said they’d be willing to purchase an Apple iPad personally if at least half of the textbooks they used during their college career were available digitally.”

The article goes on to discuss the barriers to digital textbook adoption. Among top reasons they note lack of inventory, the cost of digital, and the need for truly media rich content. The first and last are on our list of factors. The second surprised me, as the physical print and distribution costs are not a substantive portion of current textbook cost -- so why should people expect the cost to be lower. Plus, the current cost of generating truly media rich content and integrating it in pedagogically proven ways can be quite high. Digital textbooks should probably cost more not less right now if we are just talking about costs and truly media rich versions. The costs for consumers are marginally lower currently as we look at "PDF equivalents" and publishers attempt to build market share for digital.

As we look at the inventory challenge, most textbooks currently available in digital are the large adoptions -- so mostly content oriented toward first- and second-year courses. If students start coming to campus with tablets in growing numbers, over a four-year period you could have more than half of all textbook content available digitally.

So what would that mean for the printed textbook in four years time -- i.e., 2015? What happens if tablet adoption follows patterns similar to iPod or smartphone adoption in recent years? (A reasonable projection, since most technologies are on accelerating adoption curves, and early projections say this technology is on a similar or faster trajectory than the identified counterparts). What if just half of students have a tablet device by 2015, and they acquire just half of all of their textbooks in digital format? That is 25% of course materials being sold digital right there.

Is there anyone credible out there who STILL does not think trends in digital content or mobile devices or technology in general does not matter in the textbook world?

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