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About two weeks ago, we posted on the CampusBooks.com Facebook page a link to an infographic titled “Revealing the Business of eBooks.” The visual was created in conjunction between Aptara, a multi-channel digital-content provider heavily involved with in educational publications, and Publishers Weekly, the publishing (and to some extent, bookselling) industry’s leading trade magazine.

The infographic was based upon “The 4th Annual ebook Survey of Publishers” (registration required), which “represents the Consumer, Professional, Education, and Corporate publishing sectors” and was “designed to document the evolving impact of digital media on traditional content publishing and production.” Important results from the survey include:

  • 31% of eBook publishers produce enhanced eBooks, though only 12% correlate the enhancements with a positive impact on sales.
  • Amazon.com is the most popular sales channel, used by 68% of eBook publishers. Apple's iBookstore comes in second at 58%.
  • Amazon is also the most lucrative eBook sales channel. Publishers' own websites come in a distant second place for generating the most eBook sales.
  • 4 out of 5 publishers now produce eBooks, a 30% increase in three years.

The survey was completed in April 2012 and the infographic posted on  Aptara’s site on October 4, 2012. Interestingly enough, just two days before on October 2, in remarks addressed to the National Press Club, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for a speedy departure from printed textbooks in favor of embracing digital ones. In a bold statement, Duncan said, “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete,” citing a need to not only keep up with the times but also with other countries such as South Korea, whose students outperform those of the U.S. and which has set a goal to use entirely digital textbooks and learning solutions by 2015.* “The world is changing,” Duncan said. “This has to be where we go as a country.”

But is it and do we? And is this really the way to do so? Don’t get us wrong, we think digital books have definite advantages and we love enhanced learning solutions that take eBooks from PDFs read on the screen to collaborative experiential environments with all sorts of interaction and quizzes and links and live help. But we see this as more of a complement to print books and reading on the page rather than a replacement. And we’re not alone.

In “Long Live Paper,” his op-ed piece for the New York Times, Tufts University Assistant Professor Justin B. Hollander argues that “While e-readers and multimedia may seem appealing, the idea of replacing an effective learning platform with a widely hyped but still unproven one is extremely dangerous.” Professor Hollander then likens moving entirely to digital books and away from print to “when cars began to fill America's driveways, and new highways were laid across the land, the first thing cities did was encourage the dismantling of our train systems. Streetcar lines were torn up. A result, for many cities, was to rip apart the urban core and run highways through it, which only accelerated the flow of residents, commerce and investment to the suburbs. But in recent years, new streetcar lines have been built or old systems extended . . . They are casting aside a newer technology in favor of an older one.”

Hollander bolsters his stance by citing examples of how CDs replaced phonographs, digital cameras replaced Polaroids, and cars replaced bicycles and walking . . . only for record players, instant and retro-photography, and bikes to all make comebacks and be hotter today than ever. Sure, people often cite that while CDs may sound crisper, digital cameras have a higher resolution, and cars are faster, there is an emotional and sensory experience that they all lack and that one finds in the older technology they replaced. Something about us just loves putting the needle to the record, shaking a Polaroid to see it develop, and pedaling to create our own motion. And the same is true of the pleasures of holding a bound book made of cloth and paper as you turn pages printed with ink.

Hollander says, “In other words, we shouldn't jump at a new technology simply because it has advantages; only time and study will reveal its disadvantages and show the value of what we've left behind. Which brings us back to paper. With strength and durability that could last thousands of years, paper can preserve information without the troubles we find when our most cherished knowledge is stuck on an unreadable floppy disk or lost deep in the ‘cloud.’” He then elaborates, “Paper textbooks can be stored and easily referenced on a shelf. Data are as easy to retrieve from paper as reaching across your desk for a textbook. They are easy to read and don't require a battery or plug. Though the iPad and e-readers have increasingly better screen clarity, the idea that every time a person reads a book, newspaper or magazine in the near future they will require an energy source is frightening.”

So says Professor Hollander and so agrees John D. Williams, president and CEO of Domtar, one of North America's largest producers of business, office, printing, and publishing papers. Williams describes his work as “promoting a reasonable balance of ‘pixels and print.'” And as one might expect from a paper-guy, Williams is in no hurry for digital learning solutions to replace printed textbooks and he's got the goods to back up his stance. He cites the following (and more) in “Textbooks Should Soon Be Obsolete? Not So Fast, Here’s Why,” his op-ed for the Charlotte Observer:

  • Cambridge University researchers studied the efficacy of learning on screen compared with paper, and concluded that paper is a better tool for fully assimilating information. They based this conclusion on a number of factors ranging from the ease and speed of visually locating content on a printed page compared with a screen, to the distractions of reading online, and the functionality of a screen-based document compared to a printed version (e.g. note taking, document sharing).
  • A recent Kindle DX pilot project, sponsored by Amazon at seven U.S. universities, yielded interesting findings. At the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, 75 to 80 percent of participating MBA students said they would not recommend the Kindle for in-class learning. Michael Koenig, Darden's director of MBA operations, explained that the students felt the eReader was too rigid for use in the fast-paced classroom environment, noting that you can't move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared with the paper alternatives.

So it seems that Education Secretary Duncan is correct in his belief that digital textbooks and enhanced learning solutions are very important, but rather as a complement rather than a replacement to print textbooks and reading on the page. Also worth noting is that investing in technology alone is not what will help U.S. students match test scores of South Korean students. That will take a much-larger and broader-scope investment in teachers, curriculum development, parental involvement in student success, and basic school facilities. It’s not about technology so much as it is about total learning and teaching students how to think and solve and continue learning beyond the book, the computer, and the classroom. In the meantime, let’s not deny those students the benefits and pleasures of flipping the pages of a captivating work of English literature or referring to diagrams in a chemistry textbook spread across the desk, beaming bright how elements interact without  needing plugged into an outlet.

*Correction: In its story, The Associated Press reported that South Korea had set a goal to make all of its textbooks digital by 2015. In June, South Korea modified the plan to exclude some grades and to allow paper textbooks to be used alongside digital books while paper books are phased out.

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