Digital textbooks finally a viable, cheap textbook solution

Students excited by their new ipadsDigital textbooks, or eTextbooks, have long been on the horizon of higher education, offering the promise of timely but cheap textbooks that could be carried on a single device. The debut of the iPad in April brought renewed interest in eTextbooks but the first efforts of publishers fell short in offering a usable alternative to the hard-copy textbook. While digital textbook adoption is still expected to be low until 2014, a new version of the CourseSmart iPad app provides one of the first viable eTextbook options.

The new CourseSmart app corrects many of the flaws that plagued the first version of the software and the new CourseSmart 2.0 offers sticky notes that sync between the iPad and the web reading experience, along with full-page layout and high-quality images. There are still a few issues, like the inability to highlight a passage and the need for an Internet connection, but the new app turns the iPad into an incredibly useful digital textbook reader.

In addition to offering a more portable textbook on the iPad, eTextbooks purchased from CourseSmart, which covers 90% of those in use, are 25-50% cheaper than paper editions and can be viewed in your web browser from any Internet-connected computer. In the web browser you can highlight, read and add notes, copy text, search for keywords, e-mail links to specific pages and print pages, providing numerous advantages over the hard-copy books. With 95% of students bringing a computer to campus this fall there's no need for an iPad to successfully switch to digital textbooks, but you may be surprised to find that the amount of money you save on textbooks could pay for the entry-level iPad in a few semesters.

When it comes to cost, CourseSmart states that the average savings per eTextbook purchased this month is $35.89. This is a very believable number given that the cost of one book that my students will use this semester is $46 cheaper on CourseSmart than the paper one from Amazon, and close to $80 cheaper than the campus bookstore. These numbers translate across most of the textbooks we sampled, resulting in potential savings of $200 or more per semester. This would pay off a $499 16GB iPad in just over a year and still offer savings for the long run.

You can search and compare prices for your textbooks on CourseSmart without signing up, much like when shopping for a paper version at Amazon,, Chegg and the campus bookstore.

There are still some downsides to eTextbooks such as the need for an Internet connection, but wireless access is growing, as is the number of mobile phones with hot-spot functionality. The fact that you are just renting the book for 180 days instead of buying it may be a problem for some students, but not for those who dislike losing half the purchase price or more when they resell it at the end of the semester.

It may very well be until 2014 that eTextbooks make up 20% of textbook sales, but the eTextbook marketplace and software have reached a point where, combined with the ubiquity of technology on campuses, digital textbooks are a viable and cost-effective option for all students.

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