Can Digital Textbooks Truly Replace the Print Kind?

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The pain points of traditional print edition textbooks are obvious: For starters they’re heavy, with the average physics textbook weighing in at a burdensome 3.6 pounds. They’re also expensive, especially when you factor in the average college student’s limited budget, typically costing hundreds of dollars every semester.

But the worst part is that print versions of textbooks are constantly undergoing microscopic revisions. Many professors require that their students use only the latest versions in the classroom, essentially rendering older texts unusable. For students, it means they’re basically stuck with a four pound paperweight that they can’t sell back (and even if they can, it’s for a fraction of the cost).

(MORE: Good News, Students: Amazon Intros Kindle Textbook Rentals)

Which is why digital textbooks, if they live up to their promise, could help alleviate many of these pain points. But till now, they’ve been something akin to a mirage in the distance, more like a hazy dream than an actual reality. Imagine the promise: Carrying all your textbooks in a svelt 1.3 pound iPad? It sounds almost too good to be true.

But there are a few pilot schools already making the transition over to digital books. Cornell and Brown are among the Ivies to have jumped onboard. And one medical program at the University of California, Irvine, gave their entire class iPads with which to download textbooks just last year.

But not all were eager to jump aboard.

“People were kind of weary to use the iPad textbook besides using it for reading,” says Kalpit Shah, who will be going into his second year at Irvine’s medical program this Fall. “They weren’t using it as a source of communication because they couldn’t read or write in it. So a third of the people in my program were using the iPad in class to take notes, the other third were using laptops and the last third were using paper and pencil.”

The reason it hasn’t caught on yet, he tells me, is that tablet edition textbooks are exactly that: flat PDF-like files on the screen. Their functionality is incredibly limited, and less tech savvy students just aren’t motivated to learn new study behavior.

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