College Textbooks Moving from Print to Digital

09 February, 2019

The rising cost of attending a college or university in the United States has been an issue of much concern and debate in recent years.

But what often does not get discussed is the hidden costs related to higher education, says Michael Hansen. He is chief executive officer of Cengage Learning, a publisher of textbooks and developer of other learning materials.

Hansen notes that the hidden costs are not immediately included in the cost of a student's tuition. Such costs include student housing and healthcare, and even textbooks, and he admits these costs are not small.

The College Board is a non-profit organization that researches and supports American higher education. In 2018, it found that the average yearly cost of books and supplies for a student at a public, four-year college in his or her home state was $1,240.

For years, higher education textbook publishers have tried to find ways of reducing their costs to students, says Hansen. Some have developed programs that permit students to temporarily own textbooks and then return them once they are no longer needed. And many schools buy textbooks back from students and offer them to other students at a reduced price.

Yet Hansen says such efforts do not do much to solve the problem of rising costs. That is why, he says, his company launched a new product, called Cengage Unlimited, a little over a year ago.

In this October 22, 2010 photo, student textbooks for rent sit on the shelves at the City College Bookstore in New York.
In this October 22, 2010 photo, student textbooks for rent sit on the shelves at the City College Bookstore in New York.

A growing movement towards digital textbooks

Cengage Unlimited lets students make use of all of the textbooks the company publishes, but in digital form instead of physical copies. Cengage Unlimited offers this service to students for about $120 each study term or $180 a year.

Hansen says that the service offers more than just textbooks. The digital products include videos and computer software programs that test students' understanding of what they are reading.

In the past, publishing companies often would wait about three years before releasing popular textbooks with more up to date information, Hansen says. But with Cengage Unlimited, the books' authors can make changes to the digital versions at any given time.

"If we have an election, they can instantaneously provide new examples," Hansen told VOA. "If we have an economic interest rate change, they can provide very direct, real-time examples of what is going on, which makes the material much more ... relevant for the student and faculty."

Hansen says that within two months of Cengage Unlimited being offered last August, 500,000 students have signed up for the service.

In the United States, Cengage is not the only publisher to move in this direction. Studies have shown that, in large part because of cost, up to 64 percent of college students choose not to buy the required textbooks for their classes.

So in 2014, Pearson, another educational publisher, launched its Digital Direct Access model, which offers digital textbooks to students and teaching materials to professors. Macmillan Learning has a similar service, called LaunchPad.

Brian Murphy notes that publishing houses that offer such services are helping themselves just as much as they are helping students.

Murphy has worked in higher education textbook sales for over 30 years for companies including Pearson and his own Brian Murphy Group. He notes that publishers save a lot of money by not making physical copies of books. Also, with physical books, companies really only make money when a book is first sold. Since digital materials cannot be re-sold, every student who is using them has to pay the company.

In this October 22, 2010 photo, student rental textbooks are stocked at the City College Bookstore in New York.
In this October 22, 2010 photo, student rental textbooks are stocked at the City College Bookstore in New York.

Some barriers to the move

Yet Murphy warns that as more publishers move towards digital models, they must be mindful of how they do so. Some digital textbooks he has seen have simply been electronic versions of physical textbooks. Most students like carrying books they can take notes in, and simple digital materials do not offer anything extra to make them more desirable.

Murphy says that if publishers want their digital products to be successful, they must design the user experience to be as interactive as possible. He adds that another barrier to the success of digital textbook services is college faculty.

Since publishers digitally offer all of their publications at once, they want colleges and universities to make use of all of the materials they offer. Many companies are attempting to set up partnerships with schools, so that the cost for using their digital services would be included in the price of tuition.

Then schools could choose to replace all traditional textbooks they sell with these products. But this often means that school administrators are deciding what materials professors must use in their classes.

"The professor ... has intellectual freedom to choose their own content for their courses," said Murphy. "If they've been teaching accounting for 30 years with one book, and the school makes an agreement with another publisher with a different book, the professor's not going to be happy with that."

If professors are not satisfied with the quality of the digital content, they will likely ask students to buy other traditional textbooks, reducing the effect of cost saving efforts, he noted.

Textbook authors have their own concerns about the move to digital.

Michael Spinella is the head the Textbook and Academic Authors Association. He says that many publishers are asking authors to do more in addition to producing the content and know more about new teaching methods, all without increases in pay. It is still not clear how successful these new materials will be in replacing traditional ones, he says.

I'm Pete Musto.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

How popular are digital course materials at colleges and universities in your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

textbook(s) – n. a book about a particular subject that is used in the study of that subject especially in a school

tuitionn. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

digitaladj. using or characterized by computer technology

author(s) – n. a person who has written something

relevantadj. relating to a subject in the right way

facultyn. the group of teachers in a school or college

interactiveadj. designed to respond to the actions and commands of a user

contentn. the ideas, facts, or images that are in a book, article, speech, or movie

course(s) – n. a series of classes about a particular subject in a school