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April 2012 - The Future of Reference Books: Transitioning to Digital Textbooks

The proliferation of digital resources has dramatically changed the way we access information. Knowledge that was once obtained almost exclusively from reference books, textbooks, magazines, and newspapers is now available from the Internet and broadcast through a growing number of user-friendly devices. As printed materials face increasing competition from digital options, educational publishers are finding it necessary to reevaluate their current business models.

The news from Encyclopedia Britannica is a prominent example of how the information landscape is changing. On March 13, the company announced that they will cease production of their 32-volume set. These iconic encyclopedias were once a staple in many American households and owning the collection was often synonymous with being upwardly mobile and a member of the educational "elite". According to a company spokesman, Britannica will now focus on media and educational curriculum for schools, and on their online paid subscription version. A major competitor in the reference book market, World Book, is still selling print copies of their 22-volume encyclopedia set, but one has to wonder how much longer its print version will prove profitable against the shifting tides.

The marriage of digital technology and education is a partnership that is seeing accelerated growth. A 2011 end-of-the year report released from Pearson, a leading educational publisher, shows that their digital segment now represents 33% of sales. Technology giant Apple's recent foray into the "knowledge" market has introduced three new software products: iBooks 2, an electronic bookstore where students can download textbooks; iBooks Author, a program for creating textbooks; and iTunes U, a digital app for instructors and students. Newcomers frequently appear on the scene, such as start-up company Bookstep, which rents digital reference materials on a pay-per-time basis.

The trend towards viewing content in a digital format was further documented in a March 2011 joint study by Xplana, a free social learning platform, and its parent company, MBS Direct, which sells textbooks and course material. The study, Digital Textbooks Reaching the Tipping Point in U.S. Higher Education - A Revised Five-Year Forecast, predicts that by 2015, annual revenues from digital textbooks will represent 25 percent of the new textbook market and will reach approximately $1.5 billion in sales revenues. In a 2012 survey conducted by the Pearson Foundation on tablet usage, it was found that almost 6 in 10 college students prefer a digital format when reading textbooks for class (58%). Additionally, seven in 10 college students (70%) have read digital textbooks in comparison to 62% in the previous year (2011).

The change in students' preferences coincides with a directive issued by President Obama. In his 2011 State of the Union address, the president asserted that, "I want all students to be able to learn from digital textbooks." This sentiment is echoed in a recently released document from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The report, the Digital Textbook Playbook, itemizes reasons why the move towards digital is a positive one, citing improved student engagement, more personalized classroom experiences, equity, diverse content, and cost savings. The Playbook, a guide for educators, was developed under the assumption that digital textbooks can revolutionize teaching, and that they are not "simply the digital form of static textbooks."

Despite all the statistics and favorable forecasts, there is some concern among educators and reference librarians that a reliance on digital tools may not be a good thing. Two different articles from Good Education refer to a study by the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project (ERIAL). Leaders of the study dispute the myth of the "digital native" - a term that applies to a generation that has grown-up online. The study concludes that Google is hindering students' abilities to conduct quality research. One of the more startling discoveries was that Internet savvy students were not only ill equipped at finding and evaluating sources, but that they were also not very good at using Google as a search tool.

Nevertheless, the transition to digital resources is gaining momentum. The demise of Encyclopedia Britannica's print edition (after a 244-year reign) may be signaling the end of an era as printed sources lose their status as the primary tool for dispersing facts and figures.


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