Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


By Don Boroughs
Illustration by Judy Reed Silver
Feature image of G. Wayne Clough



In educational publishing, the only certainty is change.

If anyone should believe in digital learning materials, it's Phil Schmidt. The University of Texas mechanical engineering professor spent eight years developing a showpiece of multimedia, interactive education: ThermoNet. The thermodynamics website contains 800 pages worth of material, far more than the textbook he and three others have written to accompany it. But when his students are offered a free E-text of that book, what does he advise them? Pay for a hard copy. "I don't know of a single student in my class this semester that doesn't have a printed copy," Schmidt says.

And if any professor should believe in the endurance of the printed word, it's Roger Fidler. His valuable collection of antique tomes, dating back to 1490, weighs down the shelves of his University of Missouri office. But today, Fidler reads books almost exclusively on his Amazon Kindle E-reader, and the digital publishing specialist expects paper textbooks to go the way of the slide rule within a decade or two. "I have no doubt that it will all be digital," he predicts.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy, unpredictable future of textbooks. Students today are faced with a dizzying array of options when they seek out learning materials. Textbooks are now rented, sold, and printed on demand. E-texts can be downloaded or used online, for 60 days or a lifetime, even one chapter at a time, to be read on anything from a PC to an iPhone. Ancillary materials include audio files, video lectures, and interactive websites. And the prices for any one of these alternatives range from free to hundreds of dollars.

New Hardware and Software

The $5 billion U.S. textbook market is moving in so many different directions at once in large part because publishers are still uncertain which road leads to the future. "Neither the providers nor the consumers of teaching and learning materials have really settled on what the preferred options should be," says Dan Sayre, the associate publisher in charge of introductory and electrical engineering textbooks at Wiley Higher Education. "I wish I had a crystal ball." William Pesce, chief executive of parent company John Wiley & Sons, is fond of saying that Wiley has launched more new business models in the past five years than in the previous 197 years of the company's existence.

The only certainty is that change is accelerating in the publishing industry. E-book sales of all kinds trebled during 2009. New hardware, from the Kindle DX, launched at New York's Pace University in mid-2009, to Apple's just-released iPad, takes direct aim at the college textbook market. And some interactive digital education programs, such as Pearson's myMathsLab, have now been used by millions of college students. Rik Kranenburg, who heads up the university and professional books division at McGraw-Hill, notes that though "there have been predictions about the digital transformation of the publishing industry for the last 20 years," this time the tipping point is truly upon us. Says Kranenburg, "Things are really happening, here and now."

Though many digital experiments will fail and fade, most experts predict that the educational publishing industry will never again settle on a single format to replace the once-monolithic printed textbook. "We have lived through the age of homogeneity in reading; that was Gutenberg," says Eric Frank, founder of textbook start-up Flat World Knowledge. "We are entering what I think is a long phase of fragmentation." Frank's own company offers its textbooks as online E-books, downloadable files, printed books in color or black and white, and even iPod recordings. Publisher Cengage Learning also offers a wide variety of formats on its website. "We're talking about a really heterogeneous, diverse bunch of people with different learning styles," says Ron Dunn, Cengage's chief executive. "One size won't fit all."

Schmidt, at the Austin campus of the University of Texas, sees the variability of learning styles up close. He advises his thermodynamics students to use both ThermoNet online and the textbook, Thermodynamics: An Integrated Learning System. Says Schmidt: "Some students tell us, 'Yeah, I like the website, but I rely on textbooks; that's how I learn.' Some say, 'The textbook is nice to have for exams, but I do all my learning on the website.'"

Expiring E-Texts

Quote: Neither the providers nor the consumers of teaching and learning materials have really settled on what the preferred options should be... I wish I had a crystal ball.The evolution of digital textbooks begins with the simple E-text, accessed on a computer. Nearly 9,000 textbook titles - more than one third of the most popular college texts - are offered as E-books on, a collaboration among five of the largest publishers. Instructors can use CourseSmart to try out textbooks without the wasteful review-copy procedure. A student buying a CourseSmart E-textbook must choose between online access and a downloaded book, read on CourseSmart's software. In either case, these E-texts typically cost half the list price of a hardcover but are designed to expire after 180 days.

The goal of an E-text is to emulate a printed textbook while adding a few features, such as text search, that are impossible on paper. "Students want a digital textbook that behaves like a textbook, with the ability to highlight, make notes, dog-ear pages, put Post-it notes on pages, and flip back and forth between pages immediately," says Sayre of Wiley. To get as close to that paper experience as possible, Wiley offers its own Wiley Desktop Editions E-texts for its proprietary reader software, in addition to the CourseSmart format. Desktop Editions cost more, about 40 percent off list price, but the purchase is for life, not 180 days.

Publishers have been surprised by the slow uptake of E-textbooks. Last fall, 9 percent of students bought one or more. Traditionalist faculty may have something to do with students' reluctance, according to Mark Nelson, a vice president of NACS Media Solutions, a subsidiary of the National Association of College Stores. Nelson points to an experiment conducted at a California university suggesting that even if a professor strongly recommends an E-textbook to students, nearly all will opt for a printed version if they believe that is what the professor will use. If their professor tells them that he or she will be using an E-textbook, however, large numbers of students will follow and buy an E-text. "Faculty have greatest influence," notes Nelson.

Many observers believe that to succeed, the E-textbook needs to escape from the computer. Global sales of E-readers will leap to 12 million this year, estimates the research firm iSuppli. The dominant E-reader, Amazon's Kindle, was hailed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay as one of the three most important developments in the history of the book, along with printing and binding. "The Kindle E-book phenomenon will completely change the way books are thought of," declares former Pearson executive John Hollar, who now heads the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

It certainly has changed the way David Jannotta thinks of his college textbooks. When Prism spoke with the freshman engineering student at Case Western Reserve University, he was about to leave his dormitory for a bus ride to Walmart, Kindle DX in hand. "I wouldn't bring a hardcover textbook with me," says Jannotta, "but I don't leave the Kindle behind." Adds the mechanical and aerospace major, "It's definitely improved my study habits."

Less Distracting

Portability is the E-reader's greatest asset. A hardcover copy of just one of Jannotta's required texts, Cengage's Principles of Modern Chemistry, weighs in at nearly 5.5 pounds, versus 1.2 pounds for the large-format Kindle DX. And compared to a laptop, students find the electronic-ink screen easier on the eyes, because - like paper - it reflects light rather than glowing from behind. Jannotta's classmate, Brian Widman says that he gets a "sick feeling" after looking at a laptop screen too long, but not with the Kindle.

A surprising strength of E-readers lies in their limitations. Fidler, a program director at Missouri's Reynolds Journalism Institute, has learned from focus groups that students struggle to concentrate when reading on their own PCs. "There are too many distractions," he says, "Email, texting, Twittering, Facebook." Computer science graduate students have told Charlotte Lee of the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington that they enjoy the Kindle, with its limited functionality, " 'as an escape from the computer' . . . and these are computer science students," she marvels.

Still, many students in the Kindle DX trial at Case Western, Washington, and five other campuses have struggled with some its technical shortcomings. The device turns pages so maddeningly slowly that two of Jannotta's classmates in the trial handed their devices in. Lee explains that speed matters more in a textbook. While a novel reader progresses one page at a time, "academic reading is very different; we switch back and forth to appendices, glossary, references," says Lee. Students also wish for more user-friendly highlighting and note-taking tools.

While E-reader manufacturers iron out these glitches, Apple has entered the fray with its iPad. Offering more features than an E-reader and no reflective electronic-ink screen, the tablet computer is positioned somewhere between a conventional E-reader and a laptop. But the company still aims to steal the E-readers' momentum. "Amazon's done a great job of pioneering this functionality with their Kindle," noted Apple Chairman Steve Jobs at the iPad launch, "and we're going to stand on their shoulders and go a bit further." Jobs recently demonstrated his seriousness about the textbook market by luring Cengage Learning's chief marketing officer to become Apple's director of worldwide education.

With the marketing power and consumer savvy of both Apple and Amazon pushing E-textbooks, a reading revolution may be imminent. Predicts Fidler, "Within five years, we'll start to see universities looking seriously at requiring an E-reader or a tablet device for each student."


But some education experts argue that simply slapping book pages onto screens wastes the potential of digital learning materials. "We're seeing the evolution away from the textbook per se to a series of interactive learning resources," says Carol Twigg, who heads the National Center for Academic Transformation. "And the key to interactivity is the computer," she adds. "E-readers are just page turners."

Quote: Engineering is more about the process than it is about the answer... True-false is a nonstarter in engineering.Problem solving and homework assignments may be the most attractive feature of interactive learning programs. Grading homework in statics and dynamics classes had become a major headache for Michael Freeman and his colleagues at the University of Alabama. As sections grew from 30 to 60 or even 80 students, frequently professors individually graded only 1 in 3 assigned questions. "If we ask students to do the homework, the homework should be graded," says Freeman. "We owe them that."

So in the fall of 2009, Alabama began using the Mastering Engineering program from Pearson. Freeman more than doubled the number of problems he assigned, and all of it was graded, automatically and online. One of Freeman's students, Josiah Ross, notes that the instant feedback, problem-solving hints, and six opportunities to answer each question provided incentives to correct his mistakes. "If I get back a homework assignment three days later, there's not as much motivation to go back and rework the questions," he explains. "It definitely got me the A." Indeed, Freeman says that the class earned a greater percentage of A's than he had ever granted before. Explains Twigg, "It's not rocket science; it's getting students to do the work."

Pearson's Mastering series, McGraw-Hill's Learn Smart, and Wiley's WileyPLUS interactive programs all defer to the reality that most students start to tackle their homework before reading the textbook. When a student is struggling with a question, the programs can link him or her instantly to the appropriate section of a digital textbook. "It backs them into the knowledge they are supposed to obtain in the first place," says Wiley's Sayre.

The Human Touch

Still, there are limits to the utility of this type of interactivity in engineering courses. "Engineering is more about the process than it is about the answer," explains Sayre. "True-false is a nonstarter in engineering."

The latest programs do look at problems as a series of steps, but Freeman continues to hand-grade a few assignments on paper, to check how students are working out their solutions. And courses centered on design still require the human touch.

In addition to automating homework, interactivity can help students visualize engineering concepts. In the website designed to accompany Prentice-Hall's Discrete-Time Signal Processing textbook, for example, students can manually slide the input signals for a discrete convolution and see the waveform respond. "Looking at a static figure is very different from being able to manipulate a figure or build a figure from scratch," says Marcia Horton, editorial director for computer science and engineering at Pearson.

But for decades, students have been griping not about graphs that refuse to move but about textbook prices that move too rapidly, and in one direction. For the past two years, the inflation rate for textbooks, 7.5 percent, has been triple the rate for recreational books, continuing a trend that has seen textbooks doubling in price every decade or so. As yet, the digital transition has not dented the trend. Students are not entirely convinced that saving 50 percent for 180 days of E-textbook access puts money in their pockets. A study by the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that compared buying and reselling used textbooks, E-texts costs an average of 39 percent more. And as long as access to ancillary websites is purchased in addition to a textbook, rather than instead of one, the cost to students can only go up.

"The way it's implemented right now, E-book experiments are tilted 95 percent toward the publisher," says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Publishers refuse to be drawn into promising that a digital age will save students money. "The conversation should not be 'Does it cost $100 or $150?' but 'Does it help the student?'" says Dunn, head of Cengage Learning.

What's the Right Price?

Still, digital learning materials do hold the potential to reduce costs, as demonstrated by a pilot project at the University of Texas. The state acts as a bulk buyer for eight courses, negotiating a unit price of $40 to provide each student with a free E-text. Kevin Hegarty, the university executive who organized the pilot, believes that such a system should suit publishers as well as students, because it eliminates the problem that more than half of all students would be buying a used textbook and a fifth would buy no book at all. Says Hegarty: "Ultimately, we need to get to a $20 or $25 price point, to a point that a student doesn't have the option of buying a book. We roll it into their tuition. They just electronically grab the textbook and they're set."

Others believe that $0 is the right price point for a digital textbook. More than 2,000 professors have signed a pledge to "consider open textbooks . . . when choosing course materials." A bill before Congress would spend $500 million to produce "freely available online training" for high schools and universities. But a perusal of open-source textbooks in engineering suggests that there is little enthusiasm on the ground. One of the few complete open-source engineering texts is Rice University professor Don Johnson's highly regarded Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering I, a component of the well-known Connexions open-source website. Johnson, however, is not aware of any other professors using the free E-text.

"Where's the business model?" asks Rob Abel, who heads the nonprofit IMS Global Learning Consortium. "'Free' limits you to one business model-that's the grant model-and most pragmatic people look at that and say, 'That's not sustainable.'" He adds, "So you have one thing (commercial publishing) with a business model that has to change and another thing with no business model at all. You need something in between."

Which is exactly where Flat World Knowledge has placed itself. The start-up offers free online access to 20 textbooks but charges for a wide variety of other services to earn revenue for the company and royalties for its authors. The most popular option is a black-and-white copy, printed on demand for about $30. PDF downloads cost $25, color copies $60, complete audio recordings $40, and study aids $15, including quizzes, flashcards, and audio summaries. Two semesters after its launch, the company has seen its texts used in 480 courses, by 40,000 students. Though Flat World Knowledge currently has no engineering texts, Frank, formerly the acquisitions editor for electrical engineering textbooks at Prentice-Hall, says that he would like to commission engineering texts once he has covered the 25 most popular college courses.

Despite staking his career on digital textbooks, Frank sees a long future for paper. "It has the best resolution, the longest battery life, it's free from DRM (digital rights management), mobile, all these things," he argues. Paper is also habit-forming. Twigg, who has helped redesign many college courses using interactive technology, says, "They don't need a textbook, but students want a textbook. It's like a crutch." Schmidt has pragmatic reasons for telling his students to at least pay for a cheap print-out of their E-texts. First, they need the data tables for open-book exams; he won't allow laptops into the exam hall. Second, "students in this area need to have a professional library after they finish the course," he says.

Of course, the only reason our image of a "professional library" still looks like a stack of books is that we envision what we have already seen. Most E-books do expire, but Amazon gives Kindle owners lifetime access to their books, including backed-up highlighting and notes, even if the device breaks. One day, each engineering student may leave college with an enormous, searchable library stored in a pocket beneath his or her graduation gown. The future of textbooks is not just unknowable; it may be beyond our imagination.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.




© Copyright 2010
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500