One of the promises repeatedly dangled in front of consumers when it comes to the push to adopt e-books and e-readers, is the concept of educational material becoming significantly less expensive, much easier to lug around, 'greener' and much more up to date. When you consider the basics about how e-books compare to traditional book publication, each of these points make perfect sense. In fact, across the world, school boards, colleges, universities and even local governments are beginning to make noise about e-books. Many have begun trials and some are looking at legislating full blown adoption. For example, California is planning to start transitioning to e-books in high schools starting this fall and South Korea announced it was planning to go all digital with school texts by 2015. Trials are one thing, but making sweeping plans is another. The question is, are we there yet?
From the Idealist Viewpoint
- E-books use the same raw text and illustrations as their paper counterparts and are distributed electronically through one or more websites instead of being printed and shipped to hundreds of campus bookstores. There should be significant savings to be realized through reduced use of paper and printing supplies, not to mention zero shipping costs. Not only that, but e-books don't take up valuable shelf space in a brick and mortar store and there are no costly returns —if a bookstore orders too many copies of a printed textbook, they are either destroyed, shipped back to the publisher or marked down in price (all expensive).
- E-books are only as difficult to lug around as the e-reader they're viewed on. A single college text is easily capable of tipping the scales at six or seven pounds, and most students need dozens of these every year. In contrast, most E Ink e-readers are under a pound and even an iPad weighs under a pound and a half, yet these devices are capable of storing thousands of books. Good-bye knapsack, hello pocket.
- If we make the assumption that authoring e-books and traditional paper books requires the same energy input (i.e., the computer used by the author during writing and the computers used by the publisher during editing), then the digital version should definitely be 'greener' in every sense of the word. No transportation required by carbon belching delivery trucks, no trees cut down to provide the paper and no electricity gobbled by the printing presses. Yes, the web store requires power, but it's online anyway selling everything else and adding a textbook and a download to that equation is peanuts.
- Keeping textbooks up to date is a nightmare. Every year, students are faced with new editions of last year's text, meaning all the paper used to print last year's text is now waste. Or, they buy the latest edition and often have to fork out extra for a sheaf of photocopied updates that are supposed to supplement the text. Expensive, wasteful and a pain. With an e-book version of a text, as soon as the publisher receives an update and incorporates it into the e-book, it could be pushed out —intact— to buyers. No wait, no photocopies and no heaps of older versions in the trash. Out of date versions would simply cease being distributed and wouldn't constitute a disposal issue.
- Digital textbooks can be more engaging, especially if interactive content or links to websites are included. More engaging means students are more likely to be engaged and to learn.
And then reality intrudes. The reality is that e-books and e-readers do have many advantages, but the solution is not yet perfect. The danger is, if a school board or institution invests in e-books and it turns out that they chose the wrong platform, or the technology isn't quite capable of replacing the paper textbooks, or a rapidly evolving industry goes off in a different direction, they will have thrown away a very large investment in hardware, digital media and training. Of course, if we keep waiting for the truly 'perfect' solution, we'll be waiting forever, but here are some of the reality points around the purported e-book advantages.