publishing digital textbooks students want

This article on the Chronicle’s Wired Campus discusses a recent survey that finds continued student dissatisfaction with digital textbooks. I don’t use digital textbooks… or print textbooks. So I can’t really speak to the relative merits of such technologies. However, I do know that students are conditioned to learn from print. Asking them to learn in other ways can be important, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they are resistant.

The resistance to digital textbooks is similar to what one encounters teaching with social media. Sure, most students use some social media for some purpose. In teaching my course, I regularly find students who say they felt (peer-) pressured to use facebook but that they wouldn’t do so otherwise. They don’t necessarily feel enthused to be using social media in their courses. Without trying to be too cynical here, most students just look at college as an obstacle rather than as an opportunity. They just want to get through, over, under, around with as little effort as possible and get the certificate that will get them a shot at a career.

College curriculum has no sense of this audience. Half the credits are general education. Students complain that these courses are a waste of time and that they don’t help prepare them for a job. Of course most textbooks target these large general education course from FYC to every 101 course across the campus. No one will ever want to read these books.

Anyway, the point is that the reason students like print texts is that a) they are familiar so they require less effort and b) they can sell them to other students. Since digital texts could obviously be freely copied and distributed, there’s going to be a built-in resentment that they cost money. We’re talking about a generation of students who rarely pay for music. They certainly don’t want to pay for e-books that they don’t want in the first place.

Of course that doesn’t solve the problem for digital textbook publishers. But my point, in a way, is that this isn’t a problem you need to solve. So what if students don’t like digital textbooks? They don’t like anything about most of the course they are taking. This isn’t the entertainment industry for crissakes! Of course they want the text for free. It would be even better if the book would read itself. Can you manage that?

The person you need to sell is the professor. S/he’s the one who orders the book. Then it’s up to the professor to explain to the students why they need to use the text. If professors say they’re not using a digital textbook b/c students say they don’t like them, ask them why they use any text at all. I defy anyone to find a single textbook that a student body would say they would choose to read.

If the e-publishing strategy is to try to sell digitial textbooks by arguing that they will appeal to students, then they are going in the wrong direction. Digital texts need to make use of the medium to offer media and interactivity beyond what is possible in print and offer students and faculty new avenues for teaching and learning. That’s the direction I’d go.