eTextbooks vs Open Textbooks: The Student Lens

Piggy bank on stack of books
Piggy bank on stack of books

This article was written with the help of Robert Goldburg.

Textbook prices have skyrocketed in the last decade. Since 1978, textbook prices have increased 945%. That's not a typo - textbook prices have increased at almost 4 times the rate of inflation.

As many students have already experienced, publishers are desperately trying to move their con-sumers away from the print market and into the digital market (it increases their profit margins if they don't have to print and ship their books).

Publishers lure students into buying online and digital textbooks by promising access, savings, and other unique features. When you buy the publishers online textbooks, they want you to be-lieve you are getting the most accessible and affordable option.

In reality, eTextbooks are often a disappointment for students. Here's a few examples of the way publishers over promise and under-deliver with their digital books:

  • Hard Copies: Many students like to have the option to print a chapter or two to take their work on the road, or to mark up with highlighter. With eTexts, that might take a while. According to the Pearson-Education website "You can only print some eTexts and eBooks, and only one page or section at a time."

  • Devices: Use a Kindle? Thousands of students do, but some of Elsevier's eBooks don't even work on older edition Kindles. Even then, most digital textbooks have device-use restrictions - meaning that once the book is enabled on one or two devices, you can't access it from others, so don't forget your laptop and try to use your parent's or your friend's!
  • Expirations: Publishers typically only allow users to rent licenses for on-line textbooks, meaning they expire after a certain amount of time. In some cases, they're shorter than the average semester, and in others, far longer. (Amazon actually lets you choose the length by day, however!).
  • Prices: Lower prices are a key selling point for eTexts, but as one re-searcher from Indiana Uni-versity noted in the Chicago Tribune, "the digital text can cost more than a print textbook and the student can't resell it after he's used it." And even when eTexts are cheaper, they still come with the variety of limitations described above, causing students to ask the question 'Is all this hassle really worth the few dollars I saved?'
  • Now, Let's compare with open textbooks - faculty-written materials that are published under an open license, meaning they're free online, free to download, and $10-40 in print - actually deliver on promises of, accessibility and affordability. Open textbooks are often mistaken for eTexts, but here are a few important distinctions.

    • Hard Copies: Unlike eTextbooks, it's pretty easy for students to get print copies of an open text-book. Since a majority of students actually prefer print, it's important to make that option available. Open textbooks can be printed at home for free, or for a few dol-lars at the local library. Some open textbooks, like books from OpenStax, can be made available through campus book-stores, so students can use their financial aid, pick them up when it's con-venient, and it'll cost them less than a tank of gas.
    • Devices: Open textbooks and other open educational resources are usually available in a variety of formats. Unlike eTexts, there's no big publisher controlling use every step the way - meaning students can access their book online on any number of devices: at home during breaks, on the library computer, or they can even download the book and have it available offline whenever they need.

  • Expirations: Most open licenses are irrevocable. That means if you down-load an open textbook, you can retain that copy of the book for as long as you'd like - it's not going to disappear when your rental license runs out, like and eTextbook.
  • Prices: Free. Open textbooks are freely available online. Hard copies of open textbooks are typi-cally 80% cheaper than their traditionally-published peers. To put that in context, if every college student in the US were assigned just ONE open textbook in place of a traditional book each YEAR, it would save students over 1 billion per year.
  • At the end of the day, don't buy the hype. Traditionally published eTextbooks often aren't all they're cracked up to be. If we want a world where learning materials are actually effective, ac-cessible, and affordable, we need to invest in open textbooks.