Global Constant
Steve Nay's ramblings

Digital textbooks: Still falling short

Last year, I wrote about some of the reasons the iPad wasn’t suitable for students. One of the biggest reasons I gave at the time was unsatisfying experience of trying to study a textbook on the device.

Audrey Watters wrote today about why students aren’t using ebooks for textbooks. One reason is availability. This has proved not to be a problem for me as a computer scientist; most of the textbooks I’ve needed for the past two semesters are available for the Kindle. But Audrey mentions a few other points that are universally applicable:

  • "[I]t's still not quite as easy to mark up a digital text as it is a printed one."
  • Most digital textbooks cost only slightly less than the physical versions. The relative TCO of an ebook is higher since it can't be sold back at the end of the semester.
  • Ebooks aren't integrated with social tools that students want to use for research and homework.

The tools available for working with ebooks are ill-suited to the needs of a student. For example, when studying a textbook, my memory is often aided by linking a concept with its physical location on a page, relative to figures and other visual elements. Ebooks by nature remove these artifacts of typesetting.

The biggest problem, however, is the ebook reader paradigm: read one page, advance to the next page, repeat. A textbook must allow me to flip back and forth between chapters, look things up in the index, and mark and write notes in the margin. Some books, like two that I am using this semester (Mythical Man-Month and Peopleware), don’t require that; I can read them a page at a time and still extract sufficient value. Having the device foist sequentiality on the user is not burdensome for books that are read straight through. But for textbooks, which are used more for reference than sequential reading, that paradigm is ruinous.

Until we develop better ways of reading, marking, referencing, and sharing ebooks, the textbook market will continue to make up only a small segment of ebook sales.