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The Real Cost of Electronic Textbooks

Dec 29, 2011 by

Dorothy Mikuska is a former educator and founder of ePen & Inc.

Dorothy Mikuska – There are distinct advantages to reading from electronic sources: Current material is easily updated; an iPad weighs far less than a 840-page textbook (why are one-semester textbooks so huge?); students like them; it does so much for students, like provide instant definitions or links to videos and other resources. And they seem to be economical. With $5.5 billion spent yearly on secondary school textbooks, publishers have made one in five textbooks electronically accessible. LA Timeson July 20, 2011 reported that Amazon’s launch of Kindle textbook rental went up 80%. As they said in the old movies, “there’s gold in them thar hills.”

But how economical are eTextbooks? I randomly looked up a few introductory textbooks on Amazon. Many were not available for Kindle, but I found the following sample.

Title New 3rd party new 3rd party used Kindle
Introduction to Psychology by James W. Kalat $136.74 $115.00 $85.00 $111.96
Introduction to Probability by George G. Roussas $95.38 $54.74 $39.96 $71.39
Introduction to Linear Algebra: A Modern Introduction by David Poole $176.49 $116.10 $120.00 $148.76 (or rent for $62.34)
Introduction to Probability and Statistics by William Mendenhall et al $159.00 $130.00 $100.00 $131.16

Conclusion: The Kindle edition was about $20 cheaper than a new copy from Amazon, but more expensive or comparable to new hardbound copies from a 3rd party, and certainly more expensive than hardbound used from a 3rd party. This is not a fair sampling but just four random textbooks. However, this demonstrates that not all Kindle versions are appreciably cheaper than paper copies, as we are led to believe.

Let’s not forget the cost of the electronic device itself, for nobody buys just one in his lifetime. I have not bought just one computer, but six, since 1992. New tempting versions are regularly introduced changing the image of the new “cool”—more features, more memory, more access to the Internet, just plain more “cool.” Another consideration, the eTextbook you need may be formatted for a different tablet; or the current Kindle format may not be readable on future Kindles. Purchase an eBook for your iPad or Kindle or Nook, and suppose you decide to upgrade next month or year or whenever. Can you transfer your electronic library to an eBook that now reads a different format? Anyone remember BetaMax videos? How will I watch my treasured movies that are on video cassette once my last VHS player bites the dust? A lot of Word files I composed on my 1992 Mac are inaccessible to me now, partly because they were saved to a floppy disc. Remember those? or 3 ½ inch diskettes? or zip disks? Even if you are not into “cool,” you may be forced to buy a new device when it receives mortal damage after tumbling from a book bag or stolen; or when the deluge from a tipped can of pop destroys the hard drive. Will my library of eBooks be locked in a Kindle inhabiting a landfill? It is significantly cheaper and less painful to replace a lost or destroyed book than an entire eLibrary.

About those landfills. True, eBooks save paper, thus trees, but electronic devices leave significant long-term footprints and cause pollution in countries where raw materials like mercury are obtained, the devices assembled and shipped, and landfills where these throw-aways lie for generations. Due to falling prices and planned obsolescence, hardware upgrades make the previous version, still fully functional, discarded trash. According to the EPA* about 50 million tons of eWaste are produced every year. In the US, of the 47.4 million computers disposed, only 38% are recycled; of the 141 million mobile devices, only 8% are recycled. In a few years, we will have the chilling statistics for tablets. Landfills are expensive, fill up rapidly, and may even pollute surrounding land and water supplies.

What is a textbook?

Some students consider the courses they take and textbooks they use as mere hurdles to overcome, another course to add to their transcript. After the final grade is received, they hit the metaphorical delete button in memory to discard whatever was learned and approach the next class, the next assignment, the next degree program as just another hurtle unrelated to any earlier ones.

For some students a textbook, personalized with annotations, and course notes are part of the process of educating themselves, developing their minds, a material extension of the internal library of what they have learned. These students build on what they learned in a previous class, lecture, books read, people met, and experiences. Thus, textbooks, like knowledge acquired from previous classes, help understand material in other classes. My survey course—and textbook—of English literature and European history provided a context and served as reference books for the course I had on John Milton. Learning is like building an intricate scaffold that is constantly expanding in size and complexity. I frequently go back to my art history, world history, social ethics, logic, and psychology textbooks, as well as those I used in my English courses.

Each textbook provides merely a first read when I took the course. Good textbooks are lifelong reads. I have sold some, but only because they were too heavy to put in my suitcase after a semester in Rome, Italy (I quickly re-purchased them when I returned home). By referring to the textbooks, and my notes, from undergrad and grad school, I keep building on what I have learned from them. I know where they are; I know where information can be found in them; I know where I wrote significant notes in them. I navigate them as easily as I do the city where I live. Textbooks should be used to build careers, character, an understanding of the world. Are we wasting our expensive education by treating them so lightly?

There are many costs to consider when making the serious decision whether to access textbooks from an electronic device or from paper. The decisions should not merely be based on dollars, but on value.

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* United States Environmental Protection Agency. Statistics on the Management of Used and End-of-Life Electronics. Web. 27-NOV-2011 < http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm

Mikuska is a former educator and founder of ePen & Inc. Her blog is called The English Teacher’s Notes (http://theenglishteachersnotes.wordpress.com/) and it covers topics ranging from online reading to plagiarism.

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