Andy Guess provides an excellent review of the slow and uneven rise of e-textbooks.

E-textbooks have never received quite as much attention. And the conditions seem right for them to enjoy strong growth: new delivery vehicles (e.g., Kindle), growing concern about the price of traditional textbooks, the near-ubiquity of laptops on some campuses, and the exploration of new business models (e.g., working in alliance with bookstores).

Way . . . way back in the early days of the Net (1995), Eli Noam – a Columbia University media and technology scholar – pointed out, accurately I think, that textbook publishers were well-positioned to expand their share of the emerging market for web-based education. He envisioned publishers like McGraw, Cengage (then Thomson) and others would take advantage of their vast libraries of content, marketing and sales infrastructure, business acumen and expertise developing high production-value instructional content to expand their share of 21st century higher education. Noam imagined that publishers may, themselves, decide to create their own universities. Some five years later, Harcourt University was launched, but closely shortly after.

I’m still optimistic about e-textbooks. However, I think they are falling short of providing end-users with a truly compelling reason to abandon print (after six centuries). In too many cases, publishers are simply moving the same content to the online environment. This is merely “paving the cowpaths”. That is, they are using the new technology to simply offer that which they always have, but this time faster, cheaper and lighter) than previous versions. I think the real winners in this market will be those that find ways to exploit the properties of the new medium, while still finding a way to generate enough revenue to produce high quality content.

The new digital textbook publisher, FlatWorld Knowledge, provides an example of how to exploit the properties of the web to add value for end-users. One of the product’s features allows students to interact with any other student using the same textbook, whether or not the students are in the same course, university or, for that matter, country. This feature harnesses the technology to add real value. And it has the tremendous success of social networking sites like FaceBook as proof that this is how people want to use the web.

If you are particularly interested in this subject, you may be interested in a study on e-textbooks that was released this week by PIRG, a U.S. advocacy group. As a follow-up, check out CourseSmart’s – a vendor of e-textbooks – response to PIRG.

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