Looking at the future of textbooks in modern learning

This article is part of our month-long focus on educational and academic publishing
The memory of lugging heavy textbooks, from school through university, is familiar to many. Cumbersome yet essential, educational textbooks have traditionally been the mainstay bridge between students and their teachers.
But with sweeping changes taking place throughout the publishing world as digital takes over, is there a place for classic format textbooks any more in a student’s educational arsenal?

Are textbooks still alive and relevant?

Old school doesn’t mean old news. Despite the seismic effects of digital in publishing and education in recent years, the textbook continues to be useful in modern learning environments. Aside from it being the preference of traditionalists, many schools and colleges still use textbooks in tandem with digital resources, to create a more dynamic and interactive learning experience.
While the re-sale market of secondhand textbooks is fairly buoyant, with used items fetching a much lower price than new copies, the new textbook market still has impact edge for one very key reason – it has a captive and compelled audience. Many textbooks are required reading for certain courses and curriculums, although this differs between institutions and government authorities. This market keeps moving through the frequent publication of new editions, which can be revised, expanded and updated as the subject they cover evolves. This is particularly important in the fields of research and sciences, for example. However, many have questioned such regular republication, especially when there have been no significant advancements in research.
The rental of textbooks is another popular way for students to acquire their reading materials at a reasonable and affordable price, but as prices go up in an effort to survive against the rise of digital learning resources, the future of the textbook rental market is a speculative one.
The advent of e-textbooks has added to the upheaval. This, combined with subscription-based lending models, has seen the traditional textbook industry put under more pressure than ever before. Despite these pressures, textbooks still remain a key element of the classroom, lecture theatre, and library. Analyses show that this will be the case for some time to come. That said, experts have highlighted key ways in which the industry must adapt.
Also read: How is eBook rental impacting the publishing industry?

The cost of textbooks

Textbook PricesMany experts have highlighted the problem with textbook prices, which according to Terrance F Ross, have grown in the US by 82% over a decade.
In his article, Ross also highlights how publishers release new editions, often with minimal changes, to rejuvenate the lifecycle of a series. Raising this as questionable practice, the article laments its contribution to the skyrocketing prices.
Another article, written by Keith Button for Education Dive, highlighted the very real issues for cash-strapped students.
“The U.S. Student Public Interest Research Groups, or Student PIRGs, conducted a survey of 2,039 students at 150 universities on the textbook issue in fall 2013, issuing a report in January (2016). The group cited the College Board figure of $1,200 per year spent by the average student on books and supplies.
Of the students surveyed, 65% said they decided against buying a textbook because of the high cost, and 94% of those students said they were concerned that their decision would hurt their grade in that course. Nearly half of the students surveyed said the cost of textbooks affected which courses they took.”
Both commentators argue that the price of textbooks should come down, which would in part combat the threat by open-source learning materials, piracy, and the rental market.

Future learning

One of the notable distinctions of digital learning resources is that they have the capacity to change how students and teachers interact. Educators can check in with their student’s work online, for example, and give live feedback at any time. This highlights the power of interactive learning, as do AI learning apps, which can observe a user’s learning style and habits and provide tailored resources accordingly.
Open source software is another huge advantage for the digital learning generation. Forums and shared information platforms pool information, not just from static digital texts but from live users. Live learning platforms mean users can actively think and respond with informed opinions, based on the knowledge they share with each other.
One of the potential limitations of digital learning is that an app or piece of software can have pre-set difficulty ratings, which means the student using it is learning without the benefit of a teacher’s human judgement on their ability. In this sense apps with pre-set difficulty ratings are limited in their ability to support learning at an organic pace. One way for apps to remedy this is to build in a high level of interactivity, meaning educators can tailor learning materials to the individual user and create a more personalised learning experience.
Also read: Virtual reality: The potential for publishing and more


E-Textbooks are a prime example of the best of textbook and digital together. Combining essential knowledge for the student in text form with impressive and ever-evolving interactive options, users can enjoy the best of both worlds. The ingenuity of developers combined with real-time user feedback means digital education products can grow apace with the consumer in a shared vision.
This comprehensive report by the University of Washington looks in detail at how students interacted with e-textbooks over their pilot scheme. It’s worth an in-depth read, but overall the consensus is that digital is being embraced by learners.

Looking ahead

Whilst the future of the textbook itself is something that time alone will reveal, what is certain is that the arena of learning resource development is more exciting and dynamic than ever. The market for textbooks is still very much in existence, with the format remaining relevant at the moment. However, the inevitable shift towards digital will continue, albeit at a slower pace than previously anticipated. According to Meris Stansbury, a major 2016 report revealed the slow pace at which digital materials will be wholeheartedly welcomed;
“Asked when they thought the majority of their course materials would be primarily digital, almost 25 percent of faculty surveyed indicated “never,” while 17 percent said by Fall 2020, and 9 percent by Fall 2022. Yet, in contrast, 16 percent of faculty surveyed said that a majority of their current course materials were digital as of Fall 2015, and 34 percent anticipated primarily digital course materials by Fall 2018.”
But as centres for education update their facilities in line with current technology advances, and as students find new and more ingenuous ways to use the resources available to them, education is certainly no longer teaching only by the book. Publishers are adapting in line with these changes, and leading the way with dynamic learning materials and online platforms.
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