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Will e-books in education go the way of consumer e-books?

While education has no shortage of trends, not to mention fads, to see where technology in education is going, often you need to look to the consumer world to see the way-cool technologies and related trends.  iPods, cell phones, computers, tablets – you name it; the much larger consumer world gets it first and establishes a trend and later, often years later, education begins to incorporate the technology. Some technologies such as cell phones are a huge struggle to incorporate in classrooms despite their ubiquity outside the buildings we call schools. The use of e-books to convey content is another area of enormous growth in the consumer world, but I wonder if that will ever catch on in education. 

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) provides a monthly sales report that tracks monthly and year-to-date net sales revenue for publishers.  According to a press release (, e-books showed triple-digit percentage growth – 202.3% – as compared to February 2010, and e-books were the number one format among all categories of trade publishing.  Much of the growth is attributed to people receiving e-readers for Christmas and getting books for them.   

To be clear, the trade category includes adult hardcover, paperbacks and mass market and childrens'/young adult hardcover and paperbacks.  Other categories are digital (audiobooks, which grew 36.7 percent over last February), religious, education (split into K-12 and higher ed) and professional/scholarly.  Overall, education has the highest revenue by far.

What does the growth of e-books in the consumer market mean for K-12 education, whose sales declined 8.9 percent January/February 2010 versus this year?  It is hard to tell.  Anecdotally, e-readers are making minor inroads into education, if only to ease the burden in the backpack.  Two confounding factors seem to be hindering the greater use of e-books in education:  

1. The lack of flexibility of the content.  Even though the content is digital and the mass weight of an e-reader is a small fraction of five hardbound textbooks, the content is still the content of the book alone. Some publishers are including links and interactive exercises, but in most cases the content is the print book being shown on a device.

2. The current business model requires individual negotiations with each textbook publisher for a lower price or licensing deal.  The major publishers have been open to doing this on a pilot basis, but the extent to which they are willing to negotiate significantly lower costs in exchange for not having to provide print is unclear.  

I do see more and more digital content going into schools. With the iPad and other tablets enabling much greater access to flexible and open digital content as well as thousands of apps available specifically for education and many more on the edge of education, the e-reader may be one trend that does not follow the exact consumer path – at least in the current configuration of the e-book.

What do you think?

Comments (2)

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    I think that the one time cost of an iPad or Kindle for each child equals the yearly cost of book rental. After that, the parents will just need to purchase the yearly upload of their child’s textbooks for a GREATLY reduced cost! Book rental is expensive, the books become outdated very quickly, and the content does not really change. Going with e-books is the way to go from every angle; as a parent, as a teacher, as a wise consumer!


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    It is truly fascinating to see the trend in the consumer market shift so quickly after years (and years) of little interest in eBooks. I have a few thoughts I’d share: First, I read your post as confounding eBooks with (dedicated) eReaders and also underplaying the fact that students in K-12 read a wide variety of traditional text-based content (including early readers and novels and plays and poetry). Some of this content – while it could benefit from interactive supports to assist students with reading comprehension – feels like it would be perfectly acceptable or even preferable to shift to digital without modification or enhancement. I’d also note that some of the texts that students routinely read are out of copyright and are already available for free online on sites like Amazon and Project Gutenberg:
    With re: to eReaders/eBooks, I think it important to note that eReading software – on the market or on the way – is designed to work on a variety of platforms and not just dedicated devices. It seems to me the allure of the dedicated eReader devices is their price point and usability – and, for some schools or students, the lack of further functionality may be a feature and not a weakness. Not that I have special insight, but I thought it was telling that the company Kno ( ditched their plans to produce a dedicated device. Could it be that the market has already produced/is producing eReader innovations that serve students?
    Finally – my last point would be the potential for OER to shift this dialogue. CK-12 ( is taking the textbook-to-eBook model on directly. They offer free Flexbooks, which are cross-platform, modifiable, and designed for education (i.e., standards aligned, teachers edition, etc.).
    It is a brave new world in educational publishing and – while I am hesitant to predict the one way the market will go – it is hard to imagine that students and teachers won’t be very significant beneficiaries.


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