In his recent blog post, Charles Huckabee reports on a law signed in on Thursday by California Gov. Jerry Brown that will affect California colleges and their students. The law includes measures intended to provide students with access to free online textbooks for 50 undergraduate courses. Huckabee states that for the undertaking of this task, a nine-member faculty council will be established to identify the classes for which open-access digital textbooks should be developed, to oversee the texts’ development, and to create a digital library to house the textbooks and other courseware.
In response to Huckabee’s blog post, the comments display how many readers have mixed reviews about how useful digital textbooks really are. As one commenter states, a positive aspect to having a digital textbook is the ability to frequently update the material for academic fields that are constantly changing. However, as another commenter points out, one of the strongest advantages to traditional textbooks is that they are supported by professional, paid editorial staff, and so the question with digital textbooks then becomes: who is performing the constant updating work? In another follow-up comment, a reader is concerned with the fact that the nine-member faculty council who will oversee the texts’ development has never been part of the publishing industry, causing fear that the new digital textbooks will be inferior.
In a letter to the Editor titled “Digital Textbooks Have a Downside,” Anne Denton has a different opinion of what the downfalls of digital textbooks are. In her letter, Denton remarks on how the electronic age could potentially have “placed textbooks at our fingertips for the rest of our lives…but instead we are losing access.” What Denton is referring to is the fact that many electronic textbooks are available in a typically limited subscription models, giving students access to the material generally only for the duration of their course period. Denton writes that she hopes that there will be a time when “educational common sense will win over business shortsightedness.”
In a post by Mary Helen Miller, she discusses a California law that will be effective January 1, 2020, requiring that “all textbooks used in public and private postsecondary institutions be made available in electronic form.” Her opinion is that this change would both encourage professors to integrate technology into the classroom as well as spark student interest. However, a main point of this article supports Denton’s opinion in that “the business is moving toward digital” and that textbook companies have several incentives to make books available in electronic format, such as the percentage of printed textbooks that are returned from the college bookstore to the publishing company because they go unsold, as well as sales of used books and textbook rentals that hurt publishers. The post notes that by making a textbook available in electronic form, “the publisher can still make a considerable profit from the six-month rental fee.”
It cannot be about the business, but must be about the functionality and affordances of digital textbooks. A big advertising point for these new textbooks is that it saves students money, but in reality, the publishers are still finding ways to secure their future business. The focus of new digital textbook creators must be the students, and their job is not merely to put current print textbooks through a scanner. In a blog titled “Amazon Announces Digital-Textbook Rentals,” Jie Jenny Zou quotes Sarah L. Glassmeyer, a librarian at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana, talking about how the ability for students to quickly and cheaply access textbooks and margin notes appeals to what Zou says she calls “digital learners.” The fact is, however, that the digital learners of today will not be excited simply about print moved from book to a screen, but are expecting much more out of their digital environment.
“Obama Administration’s Challenge To Schools: Embrace Digital Textbooks Within 5 Years” is an article that expresses opportunities digital textbooks can create. The article states that the Obama administration released a “playbook” to schools that promotes the use of digital textbooks and offers guidance, hoping that dollars spent on traditional textbooks can instead go toward making digital learning more feasible. “Students can use the textbooks for video explanations to help with homework, they can interact with molecules, and they can manipulate a digital globe to see stories and data about countries…We’re not talking about the print-based textbook now being digital. We’re talking about a much more robust and interactive and engaging environment to support learning,” said Karen Cator, director of the Education Department’s office of education technology.