E-books go to college, but books still rule the campus, not Kindle

High school and college students are usually leagues ahead of their elders, technologically speaking. As they're dizzyingly texting and Tweeting and multitasking to their hearts' content, they're reading far fewer books than students of previous generations. No wonder some institutions are adopting drastic measures to stay on the cutting edge.

To that end, Blyth Academy in Toronto is claiming to be the first school to wholly replace textbooks with e-readers. Blyth contracted with Sony to provide its Touch Edition device to all of its students. The school has a kindred spirit in Cushing Academy, an elite Massachusetts prep school that this fall threw out 144 years of tradition and replaced its entire library collection with all-digital offerings, including e-books. "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books," headmaster James Tracy told The Boston Globe in September.
Future Shock

For people like Tracy and Blyth Academy's headmaster, Sam Blyth, the future has already arrived, and they don't want to miss out. After all, it's been a long time in coming. But a little patience goes a long way. And the kids who supposedly represent the future aren't nearly as eager to make the technological leaps forward that their parents think they are.

There's no question that if e-reading's crest hasn't arrived, it will soon. E-book sales in the third quarter shot up to $46.5 million, almost double the numbers of Q1, according to the International Digital Publishing Forum statistics. A leaked report showed that Random House's total sale of e-books for the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle reached $22.6 million through September, an order of magnitude larger than this time a year ago. (This year's figure includes the sale of more than 100,000 e-book editions of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in its first week of release.)

With a glut of new e-readers hitting the market, the supply-demand ratio for e-reading will increasingly favor the consumer. And California, facing its worst budget crisis in more than a century, touts digital textbooks as a cost-saving measure for its cash-starved education system.

Back to School

The big September gains also account for the start of the school year. Many campuses have beefed up their e-book availability, encouraging students -- through partnerships with campus bookstores and publishers -- to go digital instead of spending hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars for textbooks that will be obselete within a few semesters.

Amazon's oversized Kindle DX targets college students weary of lugging backpacks full of textbooks around campus. Seven schools -- Arizona State University, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Case Western Reserve University, Pace University, Princeton University, Reed College, and University of Washington's Foster School of Business -- agreed to test-drive the device starting this fall.

But the overall interest in e-reading doesn't jibe with students' desire to switch to an all-digital environment. An August 2008 survey by the nonprofit Student Public Interest Research Groups showed that 75% of students prefered printed textbooks to digital; 33% were comfortable reading computer screens, versus 22% who weren't. A year later, the story wasn't so different: now, 70% of students prefer reading printed textbooks to e-books, if cost is not a factor. And while 40% of students initially expressed interest in Amazon's Kindle, that level of interest dropped in follow-up focus groups.

E-Books Cost Too Much

The big sticking point? Cost -- especially for the $489 Kindle DX. "A lot of the students hadn't considered that they would need to purchase the e-reader itself, and they were shocked to find out how much it would cost, particularly the Kindle DX," says Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student PIRGs. Students weren't so much shocked that e-books are expensive -- "they're used to being ripped off," Allen says -- as they were disillusioned that e-books weren't substantially cheaper than textbooks.

A printed textbook of James Stewart's Calculus: Early Transcedentals (Sixth Edition) costs $213.95 retail and $153.93 on Amazon; used copies cost less. But a freshman who wants the Kindle e-book edition has to spend $489 for the Kindle DX, and $121.10 for the Kindle version of the book. Ultimately, students who insist on illustrated e-books (like a calculus text) are paying far more to get an inferior experience.

Eventually, rival e-readers may be cheaper, but Kindle's the only game in town for textbooks. Unless the gap is filled by Barnes & Noble's (BKS) nook (mostly unavailable until December) or Plastic Logic's Que (hitting the market nexst spring), they'll be irrelevent to students. Student PIRGs said 38% of students would read e-books on mobile devices like Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, if the option were available, but few iPhone apps exist for e-textbooks.

Kindle Bombs in Madison

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, Syracuse University, and the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign had originally signed on to test-drive the Kindle DX but backed out. Madison and Syracuse rejected it on the grounds of a poor feature set and the controversial disabling of text-to-speech capability, which excludes blind users. Both schools still have a small selection of Kindle DXs, the Associated Press reported last week -- Amazon only provided 300 Kindle DX readers to the seven participating schools -- but wants Amazon to address these concerns before buying more.

Northwest Missouri State University conducted its own trial run with the Sony Reader in fall 2008 with mixed results: dozens of the 200 participants bailed out after just two weeks of use. Paul Klute, assistant to the president of the university and in charge of the program, told The Wall Street Journal that students complained that they couldn't flip through random pages, take notes in the margins or highlight text.

Northwest Missouri State this year uses six e-texts for courses ranging from Secondary School Science to Human Resources Management. Students have been asked to evaluate these e-texts; the results won't be complete for a few weeks, says university president John Jasinski. But one verdict is already in: a static PDF document is a no-go, but "e-texts that provide interactive features are much more conducive to student learning."

Clearly, students' e-reading awareness is gaining ground, but it has a long way to go before it makes headway on textbooks. "I don't think we're going to see anything dramatic unless a sufficiently affordable product comes onto the market," Allen says. "And frankly, I think it's more probable for an affordable e-reader to appear before affordable content."

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