College Guide


August 06, 2012 4:13 PM “Completely Digital”

By Daniel Luzer

A piece in Inside Higher Ed suggests colleges should go completely digital, and sell no real books, in the next three years.

Then again, the writer of the piece might have his own, rather interesting, motivation for issuing that particular challenge. According to the article by Brian Kibby:

As I see it, the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems. Aside from the college library, you hopefully won’t be able to find a printed textbook on a college campus in three years. And if you are, we should all be disappointed.


As he says,

The needs for the shift to digital are painfully clear: Grades are lagging, students aren’t graduating, and those who do earn a degree often don’t have the skills that employers want. While digital learning won’t solve all these problems, we need to find ways to drive students’ performance to help them recoup their college investment, and I believe that digital represents the fastest and best option.

Why would electronic books do anything to improve grades, increase graduation rates, and provide college graduates with the skills employers say they want? There’s really no evidence for this.

The more important reason he’s arguing for the use of digital textbooks this is that Kibby is the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, the publishing company.

The trouble is that publishers already offer many electronic textbooks, and students don’t like them. As Kibby admits, only 3 percent of students today purchase e-books over print. Ok, there’s a reason NO ONE’S BUYING what he’s selling already; it’s not very good. Students prefer print. They only buy electronic when they have to.

That’s because students don’t actually like the digital model. While electronic might work well enough for some forms of reading: novels (particularly the trashy sort where you don’t want people to see what you’re reading on the subway or whatever) and magazine articles, it’s not actually all that good for studying, where the underlining and marking up the text is part of what enables people to learn. It’s just hard to study using anything other than print.

What students really want are used or rental textbooks. Textbook rentals are very popular on college campuses. But McGraw hill doesn’t make any money off textbook rentals or used books. Kibby praises digital text like this:

Technology isn’t just about improving access or engagement, it’s about achieving what should be the main goal of our higher education system today: improving student performance.
If my 36-month timeline sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. We have the tools to help solve one of the greatest challenges of our times - we just have to put them to use.

His glittering generalities ignore what Kibby is actually proposing, which is to offer the exact same books, only not in print form. That won’t improve student performance. It won’t “help solve one of the greatest challenges of our times.”

It would, however, help McGraw Hill solve one of its greatest challenges, which is where to decide to place company energy and resources.

If all campuses agreed to take part in this electronic textbook plan, companies like McGraw Hill would have a pretty steady revenue stream. It could simply issue new versions of the textbooks every year, and students would have no choice but to buy them, even if last year’s textbooks were just as good.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • John Sully on August 07, 2012 12:13 AM:

    I just hate digital books. I can barely read an 800 word blog post or op-ed on digital media. It hurts my eyes, which makes it hard to concentrate.

    And everything else you said.

  • Ian A on August 07, 2012 10:55 AM:

    In fact, what we need are not *digital* textbooks, but *open source* textbooks. I.e., we need to move away from profit-driven publishers entirely. For instance, in Mathematics there is the "AIM open textbook initiative."

  • RMcD on August 07, 2012 12:04 PM:

    Amen. The problem is that he may just get his wish. Too many college profs and administrators get seduced by the rhetoric of technological progress and just assume that the more digital and "modern" something is the better it must be. On-line classes are another good example, and Power Point. I'd add the "master classroom" to the list too. When you redesign classroom space to make it possible to launch a space shuttle from the front of the room, you usually sacrifice the comfortable and intimate space arrangements that make student-teacher interaction possible.

  • Blue Girl on August 08, 2012 10:15 PM:

    I'm going to be the contrarian in the crowd. I download ebooks of the current edition of the texts I need and buy the previous edition for a buck plus shipping from one of several online used textbook businesses. I can write all over them and not destroy the value because for the price I'm paying, they're staying on the bookshelf forever.

    And a tablet that weighs less than two pounds is a hell of a lot easier to schlep around than twenty to forty pounds of science and law texts.

  • ALB on August 08, 2012 11:03 PM:

    I agree with Blue Girl. I am a grad student and buy Kindle editions whenever I can. First, you CAN mark up and underline a Kindle text, easily. Second, Kindle editions are usually a few dollars cheaper. If I can get it for a "buck plus shipping," I totally do, but that's not always possible with scholarly texts. Kindle editions are often about the same price as the used marketplace and they're pristine. Third, I walk to class and it is a lot easier to carry one Kindle than twenty pounds of books. And finally, Kindle now has a rent option (!!!), which means I can rent the texts I need for a single semester. If I want to buy it at the end of the semester, I have that option, but if I'm not keeping the book, back it goes, just like a rental physical book.

    The single point this column rests on is that you can't underline or make margin notes in an e-book and therefore can't possibly learn as well from them. That's totally false. Maybe you should have asked a student who uses them (and since I'm a lowly graduate teaching assistant, a teacher as well as a student--my students who used iPads and Kindles scored no better and no worse than students who used paper texts).