While predicted for over a decade, the death of the traditional college textbook industry really began in 2016. This was the year that three major textbook publishers—Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill among them—reported multi-million dollar losses as their market share decreased from 46 percent to 33 percent. One of the most important reasons for this rapid decline: students were finding it increasingly difficult to justify the financial demands of higher education. Facing rising tuition costs, many students started to consider textbooks a luxury, rather than a necessity.

To stay relevant in an era of blended and online learning, textbooks need to be interactive. By supplementing traditional chapters with multimedia content and in-class assessments, digital textbooks for college provide students with a richer learning experience. Most importantly, they offer learners engaging material and the ability to collaborate with their peers, all at a reduced price. Here’s why digital textbooks will be essential in the future of higher ed—and why traditional print textbooks are set to become a thing of the past.

5 questions to ask when considering a digital textbook

Digital textbooks have become more than just another way to deliver content. They’re crucial in creating more dynamic, engaging learning experiences. The best digital textbooks are designed with student learning in mind, with customization and opportunities to make learning more interactive and engaging every step of the way. Before you take the plunge, consider these five questions to find the best fit for you and your students.

  1. How important is customization?: One of the biggest advantages of digital college textbooks is the ability to customize and update the information to suit your approach and teaching philosophy. This way, you can ensure your course materials are all aligned with your teaching goals and course objectives.
  2. Is self-paced content a priority?: It’s important that self-paced learning is engaging and interactive for students. Students need the tools to be able to practice their knowledge and assess their progress as they go. Supplementing readings with multimedia elements and comprehension-based questions is quickly becoming a ‘must have,’ not just from an engagement standpoint but for ensuring students are absorbing course content effectively. 
  3. What kinds of interactivity do you want?: When choosing a textbook, consider what you want students to do with it. For some instructors, that might mean using videos, podcasts and GIF illustrations. For others, that might mean polls, discussion threads and practice questions. Interactive digital textbooks give you the flexibility to make your readings as unique as your course.
  4. Is your learning accessible?: Flexibility is crucial to ensuring students are successful. And online textbooks for collegeneed to fit into this paradigm. Course content that is accessible on mobile devices allows students to engage in learning in a way that makes sense for them.
  5. How will you ensure students are engaged?: Digital textbooks allow instructors to track student progress. Did they complete the reading? What questions caused the most difficulty? What concepts need revisiting in the next class? Digestible insights like this make it easier to gauge comprehension and engagement.

4 must-haves for a modern digital textbook

Not all digital textbooks for higher education are created equal—and it’s important to be careful with how exactly a publisher is defining “digital.” Here are some suggestions for what you should be considering when choosing a digital textbook for your class.

  1. Interactivity: A truly digital textbook needs to be an active and inspirational part of a student’s learning journey; embedded questions, discussions and interactive elements, such as timelines and tools, have to be part of the composition.

    For example, public speaking digital textbooks should include questions that ask students to record video answers, so students can practice and share their delivery; and anatomy digital textbooks should include interactive models of the human skeleton and musculature, to give students one ‘hands-on’ way of exploring the structure of the human body.
  2. Always up-to-date: A digital textbook should dispense entirely with the idea of editions—and be kept up-to-date on students’ devices. Top Hat allows updates and the latest information to be updated in textbooks when needed—and gives professors control over when and whether to make those changes to students’ copies.
  3. Customizable: Many textbooks—print and digital alike—are bloated and require careful filtering for effective teaching. And, as discussed, these textbooks can potentially miss out on important recent developments that the students of your field need to know about.

    With Top Hat, professors can fully customize the material they adopt—from something as simple as rewriting a paragraph or rearranging chapters, to adapting and inserting assessment materials from the Top Hat Catalog. That way, the course is directly tailored, and everything is in one place.
  4. Learning integration: On Top Hat, e-textbooks, in-class assessments, assignments, attendance, grading and testing are all fully integrated in one place. This saves students from hopping between platforms trying to complete all of their coursework and saves instructors time in course prep and curation.

Why Digital Textbooks are Essential for College Students

1. Print textbooks are too expensive

According to the College Board, a not-for-profit organization that aims to improve access to higher ed, the average American college student spends approximately US$1,200 a year on books and supplies. More sobering, a total of 5.2 million students have had to use their loans to purchase these materials.

This isn’t a problem only students are concerned about. The results from our 2018 Professor Pulse Survey agree: 90 percent of professors think the cost of textbooks is too high. Why are digital textbooks better? For starters, they have lower production and distribution costs, and often contain free or low-cost material. According to Inside Higher Education, digital textbooks are in the US$30-50 dollar range, making them much cheaper than their print counterparts.

Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes that the cost of digital textbooks is a rising barrier, hindering students’ chances for success. “Being a social scientist, I ask my students how many of them work 10, 20 or 30 hours a week,” she says. “More and more hands are going up for the higher numbers now. They’re struggling with the cost of living, and it’s impacting their studies.”

Students are fighting back, too. The #TextbookBroke campaign on social media is asking students to share their receipts from recently purchased textbooks. These learners are also prompted on where they’d rather see that money go, in order to increase awareness of the real costs of education.

2. Print textbooks don’t inspire students to complete required readings

The high prices of print textbooks have countless consequences beyond just the cost. Nearly 40 percent of professors surveyed by Top Hat said students don’t buy the texts altogether. However, even purchasing a textbook offers no guarantee of reading it. Only 30 percent of professors surveyed say that the majority of their class reads the book.

Andrea Hendricks teaches a college algebra class at Georgia State University. In her experience, students are often ‘learning to the test’ rather than gaining understanding. “For the last 12 years, I’d observe that students would often complete their homework assignments with 100 percent accuracy but, then, on their exams, fail to demonstrate the knowledge behind those assignments,” she says. “They were hacking their way through the course, trying to find the route that demanded the least amount of time.”

Unfortunately, this strategy can also lead to errors in learning. It’s far easier for a student to look up a ‘fact’ in Wikipedia, using the cellphone that’s always in their pocket, than to fish through an assigned textbook. After Professor Andrew Wegmann, who teaches history at Delta State University, switched to a digital, virtual textbook, he found that his assigned homework resulted in better engagement. “Students respond to the text now, they don’t copy out websites,” he says. Making the digital courseware the authoritative version scratches ‘the Wikipedia itch’ and, importantly, helps teachers gain control over where their students are getting information.

In addition, legacy textbooks weren’t developed with diversity and inclusion in mind. Most print titles were written prior to the acknowledgment that inclusive learning was critical to student success. While many texts have attempted to remediate this issue, these updates continue to fall short in addressing the diverse backgrounds, cognitive abilities and unique lived experiences of today’s learners. If students don’t see themselves reflected in course material, they’re less likely to see real value from what they’re learning.

3. Print textbooks go out of date quickly

Incorporating new research into your course materials is essential to ensuring students learn from the most up-to-date content. Unfortunately, paper textbooks suffer from an inability to keep up with changing information—and the publication cycle for revisions can take up to three years. And the problem doesn’t just go away with a downloaded PDF. Even a static digital textbook suffers the same issue if it isn’t updated.

Wegmann collaborated with colleagues to produce an interactive, digital history textbook that would solve this issue. “The project is constantly moving,” he explains. “If a change occurs, or a section needs expansion or clarification, it happens instantly, without a new edition and a higher cost…”

Using a traditional print textbook, most professors had to supplement their course readings with extra materials. This made the outdated tome more complete, or molded the course to be specifically relevant to the students they’re teaching. But with a customizable digital textbook, that extra material can be directly updated. The result is a more dynamic digital textbook benefits with today’s rapid pace of change.


4. For Generation Z, print textbooks are antiquated

Generation Z is serious-minded, success-focused and has been steeped in technology from kindergarten—and now, they’re taking over higher education. They’ve never had to wait to rent a movie or learn about a topic—it all happens online, immediately. Having online textbook versions available on mobile devices, compatible with iPads, Androids and Kindle Fires are essential to the success of today’s students.

Generation Z is well into their university careers now. If all their music, literature, learning and socialization happens on-screen, how could they force themselves backward to buy an expensive textbook that won’t help them learn effectively?

And it’s not just Gen Z who suffers when a professor relies on a traditional textbook—demographics are also playing a significant role. The typical college student is no longer always an 18-year-old who lives in a dorm and graduates in four years. Almost half of today’s college students are 25 or older. Well over half have a job and many have their own children or other family care responsibilities.

For the current college generation, a traditional textbook becomes a liability, if it isn’t available digitally and on-demand. For this reason, it’s clear to understand why digital textbooks are better.

Major higher education textbook publishers have attempted to address the needs of this generation by offering digital solutions. But by translating content originally produced for print to a digital platform, legacy publishers have overlooked application and relevance in the process. For instance, the lack of personalization adds to the challenge of representing student backgrounds in course material and even helping learners prepare for their careers.

5. Electronic textbooks enhance learning

Traditional textbooks, as a tool, force teachers to stay on script, with little variation. These legacy titles create a passive experience, leaving little room for students to receive continuous feedback along their learning journey. Interactive textbooks with integrated questions and other dynamic features can give educators immediate data on what students have achieved and where they need more assistance. Bill and Melinda Gates agree. “[Digital textbooks] are a complement to what teachers do, not a replacement,” they write in their Gates Foundation 2019 Annual Letter. “Your teacher gets a rich report showing what you read and watched, which problems you got right and wrong, and the areas where you need more help. When you come to class the next day, she is equipped with a ton of specific information and suggestions to help her make the most of her time with you.”

Many academics are already on the same page. As Lindsey Nanney, Interim Associate Director and Program Coordinator in the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington, puts it: “I think we’re at the point where it’s become counter-intuitive now, in higher education, to write traditional textbooks. The work just won’t be current by the time it’s published.”

Click here to explore the Top Hat Catalog, with titles written by Top Hat authors and from partners like Nelson Education, Bluedoor Publishing, Fountainhead Press and more.

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