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Textbooks For The Digital Age

With the advent of e-textbooks come challenges — like keeping highlighted notes intact. McEntegart Library/© Royalty-Free/CORBIS hide caption

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McEntegart Library/© Royalty-Free/CORBIS

With the advent of e-textbooks come challenges — like keeping highlighted notes intact.

McEntegart Library/© Royalty-Free/CORBIS

Many college students won't start school for a few weeks, but the thought of looming expenses has probably set in. There's room and board, meal plans, and those essential reading items: textbooks. They're required for most courses, can be quite heavy... not to mention pricey and typically yield a low buyback value at campus bookstores at the end of a semester. Yet it looks like one company is looking to change the textbook game.

MSNBC.com reports Amazon has started a Kindle Textbook rental program for students:

Students can rent textbooks for up to 360 days, and will only pay for the "specific time they need a book," the company said. Rental times can also be extended day by day.

The e-textbooks can also be accessed via the Kindle reading app on PCs, Macs, and smartphones. Now, textbook rental isn't new. When I was in college, which was less than 5 years ago, I remember one off-campus bookstore starting a rental program by the semester. From a student's perspective, it seemed more cost efficient than purchasing even a used textbook. As for the publishing companies, well, they were just starting to get on board. And with more companies making the foray to e-textbooks, many other challenges are on the horizon, in terms of accessibility and finding clients.

In order to get a firsthand perspective from someone working in the business, I chatted with Vikram Savkar, Director at Nature Education. He's working with Nature Publishing to launch Principles of Biology. Once purchased, this e-textbook gives a student lifetime access to a constantly-updated textbook for Biology. Just like the Amazon Kindle program, students can access everything they would in a normal textbook on different digital platforms.

To date, about 15-20 colleges have signed on and will be using the e-textbook in their biology courses. So, what's the advantage of reading from an e-textbook, aside from it weighing less? In Savkar's case,

"It's a series of interactive modules . . . based on flexible digital content. We try hard to find opportunities to find simulations and exercises. Teachers get real-time feedback on how students are doing as well as a class as a whole. We tried to create a textbook that is rigorous and thorough, but also active in nature."

I wondered if the business model would change drastically. Savkar said:

"It was a challenge. We went through months and months of planning. Our hands are really tied. We know where the industry has to go — [selling] $50-$75 textbooks rather than $150-$200. We know that it has to go digital...but if you're a textbook publisher, it's hard to get there. It's really tough to cut prices by 30%."

But not every student has access to the latest technology. How does a company make sure they won't exclude anyone? He replied:

"Students have a temptation to focus on the latest and greatest ... Students don't have PCs at certain community colleges. It's important to not create digital divide. We've made it [the e-textbooks] more accessible. Students with disabilities can access it easier through browser — dial it [the uploading rate] up and down. You don't have to wait for big heavy videos to get cued up."

Now, it's time for you to weigh in. Parents, students, teachers — are American colleges ready for the advent of e-textbooks? As for those in the textbook publishing business — is now the time to go digital?