The University of San Francisco: Information Technology Services
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Major Higher Education Textbook Publisher Going Digital

Since the release of the Amazon Kindle in 2007, e-readers have proliferated in the literary market. Among dozens of new products, the top five, according to CNET, are the Kindle Touch, Kindle 2011, and the Kindle Fire by Amazon; and the Nook Simple Touch Reader and Nook Tablet by Barnes & Noble. In 2011, Amazon announced that e-books have exceeded printed books in sales. Despite the surge in e-books and e-reader technology, we would like to focus on the advantages of these technologies for the consumer, and whether we can foresee higher education taking advantage of them for educational purposes.

Digital BookSome of the advantages for e-books and e-readers can include the following: an e-reader may contain thousands of titles limited only by memory capacity, takes up little room or weight, may be readable in low light, can take advantage of screen-reader software for the visually impaired, can be searchable by key terms, access to definitions, highlighting, bookmarking and annotations, and last but not least, e-books are often cheaper. This is all very fine and well, but what is the utility for college students?

What most of these e-books lack in terms of applicability to higher education is a sophisticated level of interactivity that promotes content exploration, and self-monitoring of the learning process. Major educational publishers have already taken note of the rising trend in digital publications, as well as the disparity between “traditional” e-books and interactive texts, and are moving toward the digitization of some of their top selling titles. However, their aim is not merely to parrot what current e-readers offer, but to move forward and develop learning experiences that are rich, interactive, and effective.

According to the Wall Street Journal, two textbook publishing giants McGraw-Hill and Pearson had invested in an interactive book developer based in San Francisco, Inkling. Inkling is set to develop McGraw-Hill’s top 100 textbook titles, as well as Pearson’s 24 most popular MBA, undergraduate arts and sciences titles.  Other competitors in the e-textbook market are Kno and CourseSmart.

Currently, many higher education titles are offered in an electronic version and may also have supplemental websites hosted by the publisher or integrated into 3rd party solutions such as Aris or MyMathLab.  So how will this new wave of e-textbooks differ from what already exists?

It seems that the main difference is that interactive e-textbooks centralize the entire experience from the tablet interface, although it’s important to note that many titles are also available through the web. It’s worthwhile to consider the following features when considering their applicability to the university educational experience. Please note that the following is a general description about what e-textbooks offer. To find out more about specific e-textbook providers follow the links at the end of this article.


Availability is a major factor in choosing an e-textbook. E-textbooks are available on most major platforms such as the iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle Fire, the Web, and in the case of Kno, Facebook.


In some cases, an instructor may assign the entire textbook or just chapters from it. This allows the instructor the flexibility to construct a customized textbook for their course.


Navigation and searching an e-textbook varies as well, but may be done through a thumbnail panel on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Texts may be hyperlinked to external sources on the Web. Content within the e-textbook can be annotated, bookmarked and highlighted.

Assessments and Study Guides

Assessments, quizzes and study guides are part of the e-textbook arsenal. In the case of Inkling, every chapter comes with quizzes and self-assessments.  A feature called Scoreboard helps students to keep track of their progress. Feedback is provided in some cases.


Audio and video integration can create a richer interactive experience including podcasts, video, and interactive 3D models.

Interaction with colleagues

Social networking in Inkling, allows you to interact with other students. Interaction can take place through the Notes feature. A student may ask questions or comments on any page, view and follow other user’s activities and profiles.

Digital publishing is shifting in relation to the development of new technologies and the major players have noticed. The logical question is will educators take notice as well and leverage these new technologies into their curricula?

We hope so.

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