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).

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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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But a new app called Inkling might change all that. The company just released an updated version last week, and it’ll be utilized in over 50 undergrad and graduate classrooms this coming school year.

“Digital textbooks are not going to catch on,” says Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis as he’s giving me a demo over coffee. “What I mean by that is the current perspective of the digital textbook is it’s a replica of the print book. And people have been trying to do this for 10 years already. There’s Course Smart, etc., these guys who take an image of the page and put it on a screen. If that’s how we’re defining digital textbooks, there’s no hope of that becoming a mainstream product.”

He calls Inkling a platform for publishers that allows them to build rich multimedia content from the ground up, with a heavy emphasis on real-world functionality. The traditional textbook, at least in this case, merely serves as a skeleton.

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At first glance Inkling is an impressive experience. After swiping into the iPad app, which you can get for free here, he opens up a few different types of textbooks.

Up first is a chemistry book. The boot time is pretty fast, and he navigates through a few chapters before swiping into a fully rendered 3D molecule that can be spun around to view its various building blocks. “Publishers give us all of the source media, artwork, videos (stuff that’d normally be in a CD attachment or online),” he says. “We help them think through how to actually build something for this platform.”

Next he pulls up a music composition textbook, complete with playable demos. He clicks into a diagram of staff notation, which he then clicks on to play a listenable piano sonata. It’s a learning experience that attacks you from multiple sensory directions, taking out a lot of the heady guess work. It’s clear why this would be something a music major would love.

But the most exciting part about Inkling, to me, is its innovative notation system. Here’s how it works:

When you purchase a used print book, it comes with its previous owner’s highlights and notes in the margins. It leverages the experience of someone who already went through the class to help hone your reading (how much you trust each notation or not is obviously up to you).

But with Inkling, you can highlight a piece of content and annotate it with notes. Here’s where things get interesting, though: If a particularly important passage is highlighted by multiple Inkling users, that information is stored on the cloud and is available for anyone reading the same textbook to come across. That means users have access to notes from not only their classmates and Facebook friends, but anyone who purchased the book across the country. The best comments are then sorted democratically by a voting system (sort of like a Reddit upvote), meaning that your social learning experience is shared with the best and brightest thinkers.

As a bonus, professors can even chime in on discussions as designated “experts.” They’ll be able to answer the questions of students who are in their class directly via the interactive book.

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Of course, Inkling addresses several of the other pain points prevalent in traditional print as well. Textbook versions are constantly updated, incentivizing publishers by minimizing production costs (the big ones like McGraw-Hill are already onboard). Furthermore, students will be able to purchase sections of the text instead of buying the whole thing, with individual chapters costing as little as $2.99.

There are, however, challenges.

“It takes elbow grease to build each book,” MacInnis tells me. And it’s clear why.

Each interactive textbook is a media-heavy experience built from the ground up, and you can tell that it takes a respectable amount of manpower to put together each one.

For now the app’s also iPad-exclusive, and though a few of these educational institutions are giving the hardware away for free, for other students who don’t have such a luxury it’s an added layer of cost—and an expensive one at that.

But this much is clear: The traditional textbook model is and has been broken for quite some time. Whether digitally interactive ones like Inkling actually take off or not remains to be seen, and we probably won’t have a definitive answer for the next few years.

However, the solution to any problem begins with a step in a direction. And at least for now, that hazy mirage in the distance? A little more tangible, a little less of a dream.

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Chris Gayomali is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @chrigz, on Facebook, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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