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New Coursesmart Survey Shows Increased Digital Textbook Adoption, But Not Increased Sales

3405811164_d49a982c6e[1]Coursesmart’s annual survey into gadget ownership, digital textbook adoption, and study habits is out today, and if you don’t know too much about the digital textbook market then the results of the survey suggest a shiny future for digital textbooks.

Here’s last year’s survey, in case you are interested.

A total of 500 students were polled for this survey, though I don’t have info on when or where. The results revealed that virtually all respondents (99%) now own at least one digital device, with laptops (93%), smartphones (78%), and tablets (35%) being the most common.

The section on device adoption also showed that a majority of students (68%) use three or more devices every day. 47% of students say they check their devices every 10 minutes, and 59% of students say they are more likely to bring a laptop or tablet to class while only 41% prefer to bring a textbook.

But never mind hardware; the interesting data is in digital textbook adoption.

In what looks to be a recap of last year’s survey, Coursesmart is reporting today that digital textbook adoption is up as more students are using digital textbooks than ever before. The press release mentions that 79% of students reported using a digital textbook (up from 63% in 2011). Two-thirds of students also reported using digital textbooks frequently.

That sounds great, right?

Well, no.  Coursesmart has been releasing these surveys every year for the past few years, but one topic that they’ve never discussed is whether students are buying digital textbooks.

I suggest that you go read the press release again and look for indications that money is actually changing hands. You won’t find it, and that’s because Coursesmart doesn’t want to have to admit that students aren’t buying all that many digital textbooks.

I can understand why they don’t want to discuss unpleasant like this, but it’s still news and it’s still worth reporting. Luckily for you I have other sources of data.

Last year I relied upon an industry insider’s estimate of the digital textbook market in the US, but this year I can call upon data from a recent BISG/Bowker survey. I reported on the BISG survey just last week, and buried among the useful data was one important statistic.

That survey report showed that only 7.1% of students had bought or rented a digital textbook (in a survey conducted in March 2013).

So Coursesmart is claiming that 79% of students are using digital textbooks, and BISG is reporting that only a tithe of that figure are buying them. Why do you think there’s a difference?

When I wrote about the survey last year I attributed the lower sale rate to increased use of OER textbooks and to piracy:

That’s an awful lot of textbooks that they’re using but not buying. Note that I’m not saying the textbooks are pirated; we don’t know that for sure. A good portion of the unbought textbooks are  probably OER (open educational resource), and those can be legally had for free.

And I have good reason to think that they’re not pirating the content. A recent Bowker survey revealed that students were more likely to be using free and legal content than buying it. That data is from the UK, not US, but the student behaviors should be similar enough that US students likely had the same reasons for not buying.

That could well be true, but I’m not so sure. A year has passed since that blog post and I think that I have gained a better understanding of publishing, digital publishing, and the textbook industry. This has lead me to a different conclusion.

I think Coursesmart’s survey report is a pile of crap.

To put it in a less rude manner, Coursesmart sells digital textbooks. They have a financial interest in only sharing details that make them look good, so they have absolutely no reason to craft a survey that accurately reports the state of digital textbook adoption or the digital textbook market.

I should have said that last year, but at the time I was more interested in looking at the data than in questioning its validity. Now I can look at it and be comfortable is labeling it as bunk from an uncredible source.

Update: And in case you were doubting that label, one reader has pointed out that the research firm  that actually did the polling, Wakefield Research, describes itself as “one of the most experienced PR polling firms in the country” and says “We partner with the world’s most recognizable brands and agencies to craft surveys specifically to generate media coverage. No one knows more about turning stats into stories.”

That just screams impartial, doesn’t it? Thanks, Len!

image by Ed Yourdon

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Len Feldman July 23, 2013 um 1:03 pm

The company that did the research for Coursesmart, Wakefield Research (, bills itself as "one of the most experienced PR polling firms in the country" and says "We partner with the world’s most recognizable brands and agencies to craft surveys specifically to generate media coverage. No one knows more about turning stats into stories." It seems unlikely that Wakefield’s survey was intended to produce any results that would reflect negatively on Coursesmart.

Nate Hoffelder July 23, 2013 um 3:32 pm

Good point. Thanks!

Karen July 24, 2013 um 4:23 pm

Many schools are partnering with publishers to offer digital textbook test pilots. So the student is never actually buying the digital book, the publisher is fronting the cost to get the product in front of the student and to get their feed back.

Nate Hoffelder July 24, 2013 um 4:42 pm

If by "many" you means dozens, sure. But that’s out of thousands of schools, and those are only pilots.

But yes those pilots do exist and they are a sign of how publishers are going to force students to buy textbooks.

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