Who said Edtech is not without criticism?

Alfie Kohn, noted progressive educator and author, has more than once criticised the digital revolution in education as an example of overselling. Why embrace these technologies, simply because they’re digital?

Yet, for many higher-ed students, educators, and legislators, there are many reasons to celebrate technology. For one, consider students using the BibliU app and our recent platform analysis. It highlights data trends in eTextbook engagement and how digital content continues to make a positive impact on how students study. In short, if you build it, students will come.

But perhaps the most telling reason for the pivot to digital is that traditional textbooks are eye-watering expensive. A widely cited report found that 65 percent of students had still opted against buying a book because it was too costly – and 55 percent of them were significantly concerned that their grade would suffer because of it.

Luckily, the world of course materials is evolving, and many institutions are recognizing that the days of high-priced content are over. Now students can access course materials from within their learning environment, already accounted for in their tuition or class fees, and delivered digitally.

Mountain and Road in New Zealand
Students spend an average of $1240 on textbooks over the length of a four-year course. That’s more than the cost of a round trip from New York to New Zealand.

Publishers see the future too. Pearson, for example, has committed itself to a new ‘digital first’ publishing strategy for all its current textbooks. Titles will be placed online at a significant discount compared to traditional printed editions, with Pearson’s CEO John Fallow jumping on the need for students to have the newest content at a discounted price.

But let’s go beyond the discussion of student engagement and affordability of digital textbooks. There are three trends, in my view, that make a strong case for why Kohn is wrong and physical textbooks are in fact fast approaching their metaphorical death.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

In the higher-ed sphere, perhaps one of the most interesting trends is towards open educational resources, or OER, which promise not only to lower textbook prices but to eliminate them. Open Educational Resources are, simply enough, open-source resources that anyone can access digitally.

Recent legislation efforts in the United States, spearheaded by The Affordable College Textbook Act, have made funding available for open-access initiatives, intending to reduce the burden of textbook costs on students by providing online, publicly available, and accessible alternatives.

Academics are on board with OER.

Organizing to ensure that educational resources are available at no or low cost to their students, the multinational SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) is comprised of over 240 academic and research libraries across the United States and Canada. With a mission to advance Open Education.

SPARC’s Open Textbook Pilot is set to receive a further $7 million in federal funding by December 2020. With this money, it aims to lessen the financial burden of textbooks on students significantly. It’s needed.

With traditional textbook prices more than doubling in the last fifteen years, according to the Consumer Price Index, the average student budget for books and supplies at a four-year public institution is $1,240, as stated by the College Board.

Academics have spoken, legislators have listened, and momentum is growing to offer digital solutions that will level inequalities caused by the very real burden of textbook debt.

Digital Expectation

We live in a digital world. And students expect the same digital experience in their studies as they do in their everyday life. Don’t we all?

Think to yourself, how many times do you listen to your smartphone for directions, hear answers to your questions, or enjoy the sound of the latest music? For students, text-to-speech is just one example of a technology that helps meet their digital expectation.

We recently met up with educators from Grantham University, and they agree. For their adult-learners and mature students taking online courses, text-to-speech and audio-versions of textbooks are essential for success and, therefore, their institutions’ retention and graduation rates too.

An interesting note: with work and parenting taking up a great share of Grantham University students’ time, the car-based commute has become one of the best times for their learners to consume educational content with text-to-speech.

Efficient Learning and Research

Textbooks are as old as standardized education itself -- even the Ancient Greeks wrote and used them.

Yet navigating these often bulky works can be a chore and can get in the way of learning — an index at the back of a book, for instance. I’ve often found that the word that you’re needing, or the passage that you forgot to jot down a reference to, isn’t mentioned.

One of the more radical functionalities in the Edtech market is the ability to stream all university provided content instantly. Students pull from thousands of books and find the most relevant paragraphs, figures, and diagrams in seconds.

Animated example of discovery level search


Students are responding positively to our discovery-layer search, which enables passages to be identified across thousands of specialised textbooks and monographs instantaneously.

Postive feedback from discovery layer search

As far as portability goes, digital has the traditional textbook beat as well. When the average textbook weighs anywhere from 2 to 7 pounds, the burden is real. But with synced annotation and highlighting capabilities of a digital book, on your choice of device, students will never again leave a heavy textbook behind.


So, is the death of the “Physical Textbook” inevitable?

I’m not arguing that physical textbooks, just like all books, won’t have someplace in the halls of academia for the foreseeable future. I’d consider them well-kept treasures.

But when you look at the data, the trends, and the modern direction universities are going, it shows that digital solutions are not, as Kohn argues, an example of ‘over-selling’ but instead a new expectation. The digital demand is here now, from students, academics, and legislators all calling for affordable solutions that significantly improve educational outcomes, whether these come from more open, accessible, or efficient ways of distributing information.

I believe Edtech is here to stay. What do you think?