Thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for sending my way two stories in as many days about the digital textbook issue. In the first, he outlines some reasons behind the ‘growing resistance’ to digital textbooks, including poor navigation features, inadequate study extras and internet requirements which limit student use. In the second, he profiles a North Carolina school district whose difficulty with the actual devices pre-empted any further use, textbook or otherwise.

So, what’s going on here? A few things:

1) Most educators don’t know squat about IT. Why was that North Carolina school district paying $200 per YEAR for off-brand Android tablets when you can buy a name-brand one—retail—for less, and own it outright? Probably because they didn’t have a strong enough sense of what the market was, so somebody approached them, made them a deal and that was that. I see this kind of thing happen all the time. Someone brings a poster in, maybe a parent or maybe a small business owner, for some program or other, and the principal brings it before the staff meeting or PTA or whomever makes these decisions and asks for a yes or no. That’s how many decisions get made. I know my own principal knows little about IT. She has a person she pays to handle these issues. If he tells her to do it, she will…

2) The management standards just aren’t there yet. Do you let students take devices home, or must they stay at school? Our school doesn’t let them go out of the classroom. Other schools may permit home use. Do you let students bring in their own devices to use? We don’t. We talked about it once, and couldn’t get past the liability issues of what happened if something broke, or who would be responsible for loading on the content. We have eight iPads that we got in the summer which have not even been set up yet because we tried to register them onto a corporate program so they could all be on one account without exceeding the device limit and the first question we got was ‘are you the person at your organization who is authorized to share tax information with Apple?’ We need better tools for group pushing of stuff. We need kids who have been raised with some sort of behavioural code for using it responsibly. The whole ecosystem just isn’t quite there yet.

3) The content makers privilege DRM protection over usability. Way back in 2009, I took a course which involved a digital textbook. I was not impressed. It had to be read online, via a clunky web-based software. Cut and paste was disabled. Offline saving was disabled. It expired the day the course ended. It was an on-line course and I needed to be able to cite textbook readings in my message board discussions with fellow classmates. I had to juggle between two web browsers, manually typing content from the one into the other. It was ridiculous. And now, here we are in 2013, and everything I’ve seen online tells me little has changed.

4) The price is prohibitive. My DRM-crippled e-textbook was only $20 cheaper than the never-expiring, keep-forever print version. And if I had the print version, I could have sold it on the secondhand market and recouped probably double that $20. They need to figure out a way to deliver this stuff at prices competitive with the other options students have…

This is just the tip of the iceberg here. I can cite dozens of stories if I want to, of e-textbook failures I’ve heard about so far. The bottom line is, the market is just not quite there yet, either technically or content-wise. We’ll see what happens as the tech ecosystem improves.


  1. After that laundry list of problems, saying “the market is not quite there yet” is laughable… except not. Does anone know if any aency or organization is working on a serious program or study to solve just these problems and develop a working system?

  2. In order to have an actually balanced article, it could help to know a little more about the pilot project that the school in NC was involved in – being disparaging about the technical choices that schools made based solely on your own assumptions is slightly insulting. Although I agree that there are problems with the Amplify offering and was interested to see the tablet results, the 200USD per device includes an OS that was specifically designed for teacher student interaction also providing access to all digital content that the respective schools were requiring. It was also my understanding that this was just the first device Amplify were trialling as they wanted to keep costs as low as possible whilst providing schools with the easiest digital teaching and learning strategy possible. So I am not sure how the poor NC heads, PTA or teachers feel about your remarks – frankly, Amplify is onto something that could be positive – and cost-effective. I am sure with your vast knowledge of this market, you will understand the inherent costs for an IT department dealing with a BYOD model or cross-platform application purchasing, installment, student protection etc. And it would seem the amplify tablets are not the only ones dealing with problems in the face of the LA iPad project being also put on ice. I am interested to see how it all develops.

  3. I agree with the author that most of the digital publishing efforts have a variety of problems. Our reader is not yet complete (soon), but I think our platform delivers what students are seeking: affordable access to knowledge and peer reviewed books using a great reader.

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