v31 #3 Digital Textbooks Offer a Wealth of Variety and Opportunity

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

 by Saskia Watts  (Marketing Specialist, VitalSource)  

and Vanessa Boddington (Director of Market Development, VitalSource)  

Digital textbooks – everyone knows what those are.  Or do they? They can invoke strong opinions, both on their format as well as the benefits they offer.  So perhaps before we begin to talk about the opportunity they present, we should take a step back and define what a digital textbook is, how they’ve evolved and why the changes that have taken place on that journey benefit students and institutions.

The eBook dates back to 1971 when a student at University of Illinois used a Xerox mainframe computer to create an electronic version of the Declaration of Independence (Manley and Robert), and since then the primary format that most readers when asked about eTextbooks will cite is PDF (Adobe), as many originally consumed eBooks and eTextbooks online. 

It is clear that there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding textbooks in a digital format.  People may believe that they are only available in higher education in a PDF format, that they are just “print under glass”;  that they can only be read online; they can’t be downloaded onto a mobile device; they don’t meet the needs of students with disabilities.  So, back to the definition of what an eTextbook is in 2019. Yes, an eTextbook can still be delivered in PDF, but many are now delivered in EPUB3.  Yes, they can still be consumed online, but the vast majority can now be downloaded onto a desktop or mobile device to suit the reading and study habits of a diverse population of students, allowing them the freedom to choose their own personal learning space and work more collaboratively with instructors and peers.  Yes, they can be an accessible option to students with disabilities if the content provider has taken care to ensure that the content has been developed with this group of readers in mind. 

However, the continued improvement and functionality of the EPUB format still presents a challenge — aggregators within higher education can support a wealth of eTextbook features, but they are reliant on being provided EPUB content from the publishers.  This limitation also stems from a lack of awareness from within the institutional system — university librarians need the support and knowledge that allows them to understand the different formats available and the limitations and benefits of each, so that they know to ask for EPUB first. 

But these challenges can be easy to overcome through increased awareness, knowledge sharing and thought leadership, both in the encouraging of EPUB content from publishers, and in the discussion with institutions of adopting materials from other sources.  Pedagogical resources no longer have to be limited to traditional eTextbooks made available from publishing houses, but can be created by the academic staff themselves or sourced online for free, in the form of Open Educational Resources (OER). OER can be found from companies such as OpenStax (OpenStax) and MERLOT (MERLOT), and is often in the form of high-quality, peer-reviewed, openly licensed eTextbooks that are free of cost, with Science, Maths and the Humanities being some of the most popular subjects.  Institution authored content is becoming increasingly more sophisticated with the help of tools available from platforms and aggregators. These different pathways for procuring content that digital creates for institutions means students have an ever-growing pool to aid them with their studies, and in some cases, publishers, universities and aggregators work collaboratively to bring formerly print only textbooks in the publisher’s backlist to digital, ensuring nothing falls through the cracks.  Going digital also allows for various avenues in terms of business models. There is still of course the traditional 1:1 course provision, available either directly through the publisher or via an aggregator, where an institution provides one eTextbook per student per course, but hybrid models now allow for more flexibility. Whether the combination of 1:1 provision with concurrent access (a method of limiting either the total quantity of assets or the quantity of each asset that can be distributed to students, with the ability for users to return assets when limits are set) via the library, or pure concurrent access via the library, these models provide the delivery of course materials to suit a variety of needs both in content consumption and budgets.

Along with the improved access to varied content, digital textbooks also enhance the learning experience for students around the world.  Research conducted by Shift Media in 2016 (Shift Media) found that ninety-two percent (92%) of students surveyed, across 131 UK universities, had used and valued at least one of the learning tools that eTextbooks offer, most notably multimedia features such as audio and video, note-making and management tools.  Whilst note-making is a commonality between print and digital textbooks, it is the ease of having all titles on one device that elevates eTextbooks, with a 2nd year Psychology (Shift Media) student at the University of Plymouth saying:  “Best thing that happened upon starting university.  Not only saved me hundreds of pounds, but also use them more due to the fact I can access all of them, and not having to choose which ones to take with me every day.  The fact that the lecturer can make notes and then share them with us is an extra bonus that I couldn’t live without now I have experienced it!” This is an attitude that is mirrored across the globe, with 87% of students in Australia believing institutional provision of eTextbooks is a good idea, according to research conducted in early 2018 by Shift Learning (Shift Learning), and 86% of U.S college students who took part in a Wakefield Research study (Wakefield) agreeing they would get better grades with interactive, high-quality digital textbooks.  The added capability of substantial analytics at an instructor’s fingertips allows for further improvements in student success.  Analytics dashboards often offer insight into students’ study habits as well as an overview of course engagement, allowing institutions and lecturers to confidently understand how and when their students are interacting with content — tracking these specific interactions allows for early identification of struggling students, and the implementation of actions to support these students in a more subjective and personal way.  Whilst these analytics cannot solve all issues concerning student success, they offer a robust starting point that can help instructors personalise the learning journey and result in more objective office hour discussions, which in turn will positively impact students’ university experiences. Digital textbooks are more than you think because they are undeniably improving student success and satisfaction and empowering them to feel like individuals whose needs are being listened to.  Findings from a study at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (Forteza, Whitmer and Fritz) found that the increased likelihood of passing a course was linked to the amount of time spent using online learning materials — at the lowest level of online activity in both platforms, students had a 70% likelihood of passing a course, which increased to 98% at the highest level of activity.

In 2017 research conducted by Shift Learning (Shift Learning) found that there were more than 4,500 online courses offered by UK higher education institutions — and this number is still growing.  They reach students who would otherwise not be able to study with them: overseas students, students with disabilities, or those with caring and work responsibilities that make full-time study on campus difficult.  For these students, eTextbooks are more than a convenient way of accessing content — they improve their learning experience. Online learners are more likely to report that eTextbooks made them feel more prepared, less worried, contributed to raising their grade, improved their digital literacy, and made them feel more employable, according to research carried out at the end of 2017 (Shift Learning).

However, whether due to perceived “technical shortcomings,” the risk of eye strain from looking at a screen for extended periods of time, or the difficulty for some of reading on a small device, it is important to realize that digital is not a cure-all.  There will always be users that prefer print, and institutions must be careful to embrace a blended learning approach, to avoid fragmentation of courses.

But digital textbooks undoubtedly open possibilities for students with disabilities on both online courses and courses taught on campus.  Accessibility is an important aspect of modern education, and one that is becoming of increasingly higher priority for both publishers and aggregators.  Features like text to speech, the ability to resize text, and navigational tagging ensures a stress-free learning experience for those with disabilities.  A 2018 case study with BPP University (BPP) found that students with a visual, hearing, or other cognitive disability were more likely to report that some features, such as ability to magnify text, had a positive impact on their learning compared to their peers (94% vs. 87%), and it’s these positive impacts that truly sets eTextbooks a step above the print equivalent.  Some aggregators are now even going one step further in their commitment to accessibility and are harnessing publishers’ metadata to not only present how accessible a text is to students with disabilities but also whether those accessibility enhancements are useful to the disability of that individual student. Recognizing the challenges students face when seeking accessible digital course materials, companies such as VitalSource are enabling their publisher partners to identify accessible content and highlight specific accessibility features.  All eTextbooks and course content in the VitalSource catalogue with one or more accessibility features will now be clearly designated with a symbol in the store.  Along with the positive impact on students’ autonomous learning, this accessibility transparency also allows librarians and disability officers the chance to answer accessibility queries in a quick and easy manner — the information they need is presented in a clear, upfront manner.

Yes, digital textbooks have limitations, and it can be a challenge for institutions to find the budget to fund eTextbook provisions, but it would be a disservice to the strides within higher education not to acknowledge what they can offer students and institutions.  The improved access to content, and accessibility features for those who do not have the same sensory abilities that the majority enjoy should in their own right be enough to change perceptions and show that digital textbooks are more than you think. eTextbooks give students whose circumstances do not allow them to study on campus access to higher education and the chance to complete a university degree, which they may have previously believed to be unobtainable.  They can be accessed anywhere, or anytime, meaning students do not have to rely on previously created learning spaces, and can study where they are most comfortable. They provide librarians and teaching and learning staff insights into engagement, to be harnessed for decision making in the future and early intervention with struggling students. Digital textbooks are not everybody’s first choice, but they are nevertheless made for everyone.


AdobeAdobe Document Cloud.  2019. March 2019.

BPP.  “BPP University Case Study.”  2018.

Forteza, Diego, et al.  “Improving Student Risk Predictions.”  2018.

Manley, Laura and Holley P. Robert.  “History of the Ebook: The Changing Face of Books .”  Technical Services Quarterly (2012).

MERLOTMERLOT.  2019.  March 2019.

OpenStaxOpenStax. 2019.  March 2019.

Shift Learning.  “Australian Students’ Success and Satisfaction Research.”  2018.

—.  “How eTextbooks Impact Learning Outcomes.”  2017.

—.  “Online Learners Report a High Positive Impact From eTextbooks.”  2017.

Shift Media.  “Digital Learning and eTextbooks in UK Higher Education.”  2016.

Wakefield.  “2017 Wakefield Research.”  2017.  


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