Kindles or Textbooks? How Digital Publishing Is Impacting Education

September 18th, 2017 No Comments Features

I remember how excited I was at the start of every semester in school, and later in college, flicking through the glossy pages of my brand new textbooks and inhaling the smell of fresh print. That excitement usually faded after a few days of lugging an oversized backpacked full of bulky books to and from school. But what was such an established routine for my peers and and me might soon be a distant memory.

Digital publishing has long overtaken traditional publishing in the non-academic sector, and is now making waves in educational publishing. While some are welcoming the digital era with open arms, others are skeptical about the impact of digital textbooks on learning. One thing is clear: digital publishing and the data collected in conjunction will heavily impact education.

Textbooks of the Future

For those of us who have grown up using traditional textbooks, it can be hard to imagine what digital textbooks actually look like. In their simplest form, they could be electronic versions of a textbooks, just like the e-book version of any novel you might read on your kindle.

Even in this form, the advantages of digital textbooks are obvious. Content can be updated conveniently, they are cheaper to produce, and materials can be accessed from any device, meaning no more hauling around heavy backpacks.

A Digital Generation

However, for a generation who grew up with smartphones and tablets, stagnant printed content can’t compete with interactive games, whether on paper or in e-book format. The latest digital study materials use a combination of written content, audio visuals, links to external resources, and gamification. Not only does this help hold the attention of easily distracted students, it also caters to different learning preferences. Interactive interfaces aim to keep students engaged and interested. Just like in social media, engagement is everything when it comes to e-learning.

But it doesn’t stop there. The advancement of artificial intelligence means that text books can track their students learning habits and adjust their teaching approach accordingly.

Real-Time Analytics and Feedback

One of the biggest advantage of book digitisation is that it allows the collection of data that was previously inaccessible. This data is relevant to publishers and educators alike. While publishers can get detailed insights to help them make decisions on pricing, content creation and organisation, educators can get a better understanding of what students spend time on, where they get stuck, and what individual students need help with. It allows them to customise their curriculum, cater to the needs of different learning levels, and supply students with deeper, more interactive feedback than traditional grades.

One such system that has been in use since 1999 is ALEKS, a web based mathematics, accounting, and chemistry learning tool. The software adapts its content for each individual student based on a student proficiency database that it builds over time. Systems like ALEKS can be used to teach classes with students of wide ranges of abilities, which can be especially useful in underprivileged schools. Unlike human teachers, ALEKS can assess each student and fill in individual gaps in classes of 20 or 30, allowing students to progress to the next level only when they’ve caught up with the syllabus.

More Screen Time

Some parents and teachers are concerned about artificial intelligence taking over the classroom full-time, but experts say that teachers will never be fully replaced by technology. The current system uses ‘Blended Learning’ in which digital lessons are combined or alternated with traditional teacher-led lessons.

Another criticism voiced by experts regarding e-textbooks, is that they encourage students to spend even more time glued to a device. Instead of fostering real-life interaction and developing communication and other soft skills, students learn individually in front of screens.

Low-Cost Alternatives?

One of the biggest apparent advantages of digital textbooks is affordability. Ten years after the Kindle was invented in 2007, the average college student still spends around $1,200 per year on textbooks. One of the biggest criticisms of traditional paper textbooks is their price, with college texts often costing up to $300 per book.

The problem is that, unlike other books, textbooks are kept artificially expensive, as textbooks are exempt from the usual supply and demand. Students are told which books they must buy each semester and have little say in the matter. The only way to save on text books is to buy them second hand, but with new editions being released almost yearly, that is often not an option.

In theory, digital textbooks and study materials should be cheaper to produce and keep updated. Some experts are advocating for an open source approach to educational publishing, making textbooks available at little or no cost at all. One such advocate recently authored a report called “Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution,” which makes the point that technology is readily available that could bring digital course materials to students worldwide at an affordable price.

Whether the cost of textbooks will decrease over the next years remains unclear, as many academics and publishers are hindering progress by continuing to use physical textbooks with electronic materials treated merely as add-ons that often expire at the end of the semester.

We have yet to see what long-term impact digital publishing will have on the cost of education and the way we learn. But with technology changing and adapting at an unprecedented pace, we can be sure that digital textbooks are here to stay.


Jennifer is a freelance writer for Open Colleges. She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Imperial College and now travels and works location independently. Her interests lie in travel, personal growth and development, and the future of work. You can follower her @nomadgirls or at

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