The Move to Digital: Consumer Trends and Drivers toward e-Textbook Adoption


For our Move to Digital series, we will be featuring a few articles from Katherine Molina. Katherine is a recent M.B.A. graduate from the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she studied the business of innovation, education and entrepreneurship. She lives in New York City.  

Following on the recent TBG post about barriers to digital textbook adoption, I thought it would be useful to look at the flip side of that issue – what factors are beginning help students break into the digital textbook realm.

As writers here at TBG and many others have pointed out, despite the high costs of traditional textbooks, college students are only beginning to show interest in electronic versions. A 2010 NACS report lists the two key factors for this growth in interest as increased student awareness of digital products and increased professorial savvy about how to access, assign and use these resources. Increased product sophistication from publishers (taking delivery, readability and scalability into account), and the rise of e-reading devices and tablets have also been exhaustively discussed. To this list, I would add two more important factors:

In aggregate, there are two particularly important drivers:

  1. The rapid expansion of online learning, as discussed here at TBG just last week. Although plenty of online university programs require students have physical textbooks to supplement their coursework, the tie-ins with digital content are easy to see and the ability of instructors to use more sophisticated digital products to better track their students’ progress (or reap the benefits of more complex adaptive technologies) make e-textbooks a potentially appealing resource for online courses and programs. It helps that textbook publishers are wise to this trend and investing in LMS and PLE technologies, ideally with extensive content integration in the offing.  PearsonCengage and McGraw-Hill all have horses in this race, with possible big wins for students as a group.
  2. Government (federal, state and local) funding for technology initiatives in schools. While technology seems to permeate almost every aspect of public education discussions and overall budgets for schools (both K-12 and postsecondary) are getting squeezed, the basic rules of cause and effect remain the same: if funding dries up for exploring, acquiring, rolling out and offering training for new technology initiatives in schools, those technologies are more likely to be pushed off into the indefinite future for individual schools, districts and universities. One of the much-heralded attractions of digital textbook content is the possibility for cheaper access for schools and students alike, but learning curves involve both risk and cost that are not easily brushed aside in a tight budget cycle. Especially in postsecondary markets as the conversation branches out from individual students and professors to entire departments and institutions, these macro factors may start to have a much more notable effect on overall e-Textbook adoption rates.

This is a good-news post, however, so we’ll end with what may be the most promising nugget of information about adoption drivers at the individual student level: in a survey I conducted this spring with support from Pearson Education, we found that one of the strongest factors that drove individual college students to opt for eTextbooks over their print counterparts was past eTextbook use. On the surface, this serves to reinforce the low-hanging fruit mentioned above of exposure/awareness driving eTextbook sales in the future. But the implications are more dramatic than that: despite the poor selection and clunky presentation that have characterized the eTextbook market up to now, students who have taken the plunge and tried even these products are still, for the most part, willing to do it again. The only ones who were less willing were those who had characterized the experience as “poor”—a surprisingly small minority (only 6% of 439 students who claimed previous experience with eTextbooks). In general, there was a moderately strong positive correlation between previous experience with eTextbooks and willingness to try them in the future. This speaks to a possible snowballing effect as more campuses and individual students begin to experiment with digital textbook products in the future—much more so than conventional “exposure leads to sales” marketing wisdom. It also hints at a grateful market for improved digital textbook products down the line.

Price, availability, levels of classroom integration, and other factors will no doubt each have their own impact on overall eTextbook sales numbers in the coming years. But it seems that students are more ready for digital textbooks than the current low penetration numbers suggest.