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Students Are Using – But Not Buying – Digital Textbooks, Coursesmart Survey Shows

Coursesmart put out a press release today with the results of their latest survey.  While the press release is rather interesting, it hinted at some conclusions that weren’t stated. I asked for the actual results and I ended up with some rather interesting data.

The survey covered mobile devices and how students used them. A total of 500 students were polled. Only 2.8% didn’t have a mobile device and only 2.3% of those who had a device didn’t use it for school.

Far more students own a laptop (93%), or smartphone (57%) than own a tablet (22%, including the iPad). And only about 1 in 6 own an ereader. It’s not a surprise that tablets beat ereaders, but the important detail is what beat tablets. (More on this later.) The results also showed that far more students used their mobile device to send email (88%), research study topics (85%), or write papers (83%) than used it to read a digital textbook (45%).

The survey results cover much more than that, but I’m focusing on these 2 points because they tell a lot about the digital textbook market.

First and foremost, look at how many more people own a laptop than a tablet or iPad. If you’ve bought into the iPad hype as the future of education then that should give you pause.  The students clearly don’t think as much of the iPad as tech bloggers do.

I know that I’ve had reservations about iBooks before as well as digital textbooks in general, but it looks like I had a point. Everyone has a laptop but hardly anyone has an iPad. That leads me to wonder if Inkling or iBooks based digital textbooks aren’t going to fair well on the open market. Perhaps it might be better to say that they will need for students to either be forced to buy the iBooks edition or the textbook will need to be adapted so non-iPad owners can use it.

Once again, cross-platform content is the key. If only 1 student in 7 has an iPad in a given classroom, it’s going to be kinda hard for the rest of  the students to be required to buy the digital textbook in iBooks.

And the usage statistics also tell an interesting tale. College students use their mobile device for school, but they do much more with it than digital textbook. That was the least popular use of a mobile device, actually.

Still, 43.7% of all students use digital textbooks. That figure is far higher than I expected, so much so that I wish Coursesmart had asked about how the students had gotten their content (paid vs free vs pirated digital textbooks). You see, according to Rob Reynold’s book The Future of Learning, the college textbook market came to about $8.7 billion last year (estimated), and digital textbooks made up only 3% or so.

So we have over 40% of students using digital textbooks yet they only account for 3% of the market. 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.

If these numbers are to be believed, we’re already seeing a high ebook adoption rate among college students (higher than the rest of the population, according to Pew). But they’re not buying.  And unless something changes I don’t think they will buy. This does not bode well for publishers.

P.S. Here are the statistics I discussed above:

Percentage that own a device:
  • 92.9% own laptops
  • 57.5% own smartphones
  • 22.2% own an iPad/tablet
  • 16.9% own an ereader such as a Kindle or Nook
  • 2.8% own none of these
How are you using your device for school?:
  • 87.9% use it to send emails
  • 85.2% use it to research study topics
  • 82.8% use it to write papers and essays
  • 63.4% use it for class presentations
  • 61.2% use it to take notes
  • 45.0% use it to read an e-textbook
  • 16.7% use it for other purposes
  • 2.3% don’t use it for any of the above reasons

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Smoley May 24, 2012 um 12:27 am

>> The students clearly don’t think as much of the iPad as tech bloggers do.<<

Perhaps. I think it's more of a case of the parents (who likely paid for the laptop) don't think of the iPad as a necessity for higher learning.

Bruce Barrett May 24, 2012 um 7:03 am


Thanks for the nice article. Definitely food for thought.


Still, 43.7% of all students use digital textbooks…
…the college textbook market came to about $8.7 billion last year…
…digital textbooks made up only 3% or so.

So we have over 40% of students using digital textbooks yet they only account for 3% of the market. That’s an awful lot of textbooks that they’re using but not buying.

There’s a much simpler explanation for this "discrepancy" of "using but not buying." Not every book is in both forms. So, if I prefer e' and have 15 text books and only 1 is available as e' I’ve just accounted for the "discrepancy." 3% e' sales.

No free or pirated are books required.

It could, of course be either or a combination of both, there just isn’t enough data (stated) to know for sure. So the title "Students Are Using – But Not Buying – Digital Textbooks" cannot be known by the data presented.

Thank you.

Nate Hoffelder May 30, 2012 um 10:54 pm

True, but even the major textbook publishers are saying only 3 percent of students are buying digital textbooks:

fjtorres May 24, 2012 um 7:23 am

HMH’s recent bankruptcy filing was triggered by shortfalls in their textbook business.
At the same time that state and local governments are cutting back and looking for open textbook alternatives, the textbook publishers are spinning iPad-based schemes based on annual etextbook sales to those same governments. I see disappointment ahead.
Somewhere along the way, the textbook publishers have lost sight of the core lesson of the fiction ebook market: there is no gatekeeping anymore. There are no barriers to entry.
In the university market in particular, the teachers themselves are fully qualified to craft their own course materials and textbooks out of readily available resources.
eTextbook use will grow but the textbook business is not a growth industry.
HMH is not the last shock we’ll be seeing.

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