Can the Kindle and Its Ilk Ease Textbook Inflation?

And are they ready for prime time?

Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of open-source textbooks, offers another model, providing students online access to the entire textbook—for free. Currently focused on the business curriculum, Flat World’s textbooks will be in use by more than 90,000 students at 1,200 schools this fall. The titles are available under a Creative Commons license; students pay for alternative formats. Students can choose to print the text in black and white ($30) or color ($60), or buy it in Braille or DAISY, or as an audiobook ($39.95, or $2.99 per chapter).

At Cerritos College, a two-year institution serving southeastern Los Angeles County, the business administration department incorporated Flat World texts in all its core classes and in a six-week distance learning course for retail managers. According to Linda Lacy, Cerritos’ president, the result was an improvement in GPA and retention rates. Based on professor and student feedback, Cerritos has decided to make open textbooks a permanent part of the department.

E-books from traditional publishers are “irrationally priced,” says Flat World founder Eric Frank. Many of these texts also restrict students from printing more than 10 pages, forcing them to pay the print-on-demand prices. And while printed books are expensive, students can expect to sell them back to recoup some of their losses. Most e-books from traditional publishers will automatically get deleted 180 days after the course ends: There goes the money.

Not one student bought a Kindle for personal use after the semester.
Photograph by Aurimas Adomavicius
Not one student bought a Kindle for personal use after the semester.

Despite their disappointing experience last year, Pace professors remain cautiously optimistic about digital textbooks. And for her part, Allen hopes that e-books will become more useful as additional publishers incorporate options now offered by Pearson and Flat World, such as giving professors the ability to reorder chapters, delete material from the text, embed video and audio clips to enhance the text, or add explanatory notes and external references. “Currently, textbooks out there are pretty lame,” she says. “They are just PDF files.”

For now, publishers are not committing to any single e-reader or file format—especially since, as Stenerson notes, “the iPad turned the e-reader business into chaos.” And Bowker’s PubTrack Consumer statistics indicate that students are still more likely, at 42 percent, to read e-books (textbooks included) on a laptop or computer than on dedicated e-readers or mobile devices.

And even if e-textbooks do catch on, that won’t necessarily mean the end of printed texts. “Free online is nice to have,” says Flat World spokesperson Carole Walters. “But students want something in hand.”

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