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Ebook Readers and College Textbooks: Can the iPad or Kindle Replace Traditional Texts?

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Thanks to the ability to purchase used books online and the relatively new textbook rental services, the hefty price tag associated with college textbooks may finally be decreasing. The rising popularity of ebook readers such as the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble nook and the Apple iPad is also expected to change the way college students purchase and “read” textbooks.

College Textbook Prices Continue to Soar

The rising cost of a college education has been a huge concern of students and parents across the country, but the price of college textbooks has also been in the spotlight. An Associated Press article published earlier this week reported that a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found college textbook prices had increased at twice the rate of inflation over the previous two decades. Newer statistics from the National Association of College Stores show that the cost of textbooks climbed fourteen percent from the 2006-2007 academic year to 2008-2009.

A new federal law that is part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 went into effect this past July, and it requires textbook publishers to provide college professors with textbook price information. The law also requires colleges and universities to notify students which textbooks will be required reading for each class at the time of registration so that students will have more time to shop around for their textbooks.

Ebook Readers Gaining Popularity among Students

Despite the benefits of the new federal law, some college students are opting to purchase electronic versions of their necessary textbooks instead of relying on the old standby. Data released this past April by the Student Monitor, a research firm that studies lifestyle trends among college students, found that the Apple iPad tablet is already more popular than the Amazon Kindle among students who do not already own a wireless ebook reader but are interested in purchasing one.

Questions are rising as to whether or not students can learn as well with digital ebook readers as they can with traditional textbooks. Federal officials actually cautioned colleges to hold off on using ebook readers until the necessary technology can accommodate disabled students, and plenty of snags have already been reported.

Will iPads take the Place of Traditional Textbooks?

Even so, USA Today reports that North Carolina State University is loaning iPads to students through its library, the University of Maryland at College Park is planning to give iPads to students in its Digital Cultures and Creativity program, George Fox University has announced it will offer iPads to first-year students in the fall as an alternative to its laptop giveaway, and Seton Hill University says it will give all its students free iPads.

An August 10, 2010 article in PC World claims that the National Association of College Stores found that digital textbooks account for just two to three percent of sales at member stores, and studies show that many students find it difficult to read complex material on a digital screen for long periods at a time.

Downside of Ebook Readers

Some students simply feel that they can read and comprehend material better with a traditional textbook. Ebook readers have definitely taken off, but college textbooks typically contain information that is much more complicated than a novel that someone would read for enjoyment.

“Textbooks are the most complex e-book that there is out there, with everything from pagination, notation, searching and indexing, copy/paste, the ability to post to social media, and then multimedia like video, audio, pictures, and slideshows… an e-textbook has to put them all in one package and do them well,” Josh Koppel of ScrollMotion, a company that is working with publishers to bring texts to the iPad, told PC World.

Are You in the Kno?

Yet another ebook reading device made its debut at the D8 technology conference in Southern California earlier this summer—the Kno. The Kno was developed to take the place of college textbooks, which is why it has two 14-inch screens, giving students the ability to look at two “pages” at once. It folds shut like a laptop computer, and it also weighs over five pounds, considerably more than the other ebook readers on the market. A test version of the Kno is supposed to be released sometime this fall.

Although it’s too early in the game to determine whether or not ebook readers will monopolize the college textbook market, textbook rentals and the ability to purchase used texts online should help students save money this fall.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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Stephen Solomon over 7 years ago Stephen Solomon


There are two pieces of the puzzle not mentioned here: the price of the reader as a factor in the overall cost of the textbook, and the role of financial aid in purchase of course materials. The Kno is expected to be priced in the iPad range, $500-$700. Even with a digital version of the textbook priced at 60% of the average retail, the total cost of operation of something like the Kno will remain very high until the total cost of the reader is completely amortized, making it possible, given technology and platform changes, that some students may never truly see the reader pay for itself. Secondly, NACS estimates that 45% of required course materials are purchased with financial aid funds. Will students be able to buy readers with financial aid money at the college bookstore? Will they be able to buy the digital books that load on those readers using financial aid funds? This is a major concern when considering the future of readers like the Kno and iPad.