Not a Textbook Scenario

Growth of e-books market brings challenges for educators and booksellers

Fortunately for Kennedy Book Store on the University of Kentucky campus, the Wildcats are national champions. The store’s general manager, Carol Behr, said Kennedy Book Store has sold plenty of national basketball championship paraphernalia in the past year to make up for slowing revenues from traditional textbook sales in favor of electronic textbooks. “We’ve seen so many changes, so we’re used to changes,” said Behr, who has been the store’s general manager for 21 years and is the founder’s daughter. “This is a big one, but we’ve learned to go with it.”

For Kennedy Book Store, approximately 75 percent of business done is on textbooks, both new and used. The store typically makes 20 to 25 percent profit on physical textbooks, but as little as 8 percent on e-textbooks that are purchased with a code from the store.

As Behr pointed out, the shift to electronic/online textbooks is not a shock to anyone, but, in light of a recent push from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to go all digital for school textbooks, and the increasing prevalence of personal tablets, laptops and smartphones, physical textbooks may soon be a thing of yesteryear.

The argument from Duncan, according to a recent article from The Philadelphia Inquirer, is that American schools must adopt this new technology in order to keep up with other countries that are outperforming U.S. students. Digital textbooks allow for interactive content, videos and more frequently updated information — and a more competitive learning experience overall, Duncan argued.

But not so fast, said Fayette County Public Schools Educational Diagnostician Jennifer Milburn. While she concurs that online and electronic school learning tools are extremely valuable and are doing wonderful things in the classroom, she also sees the effects that quick information can have on her third-grader.

“Things are so instant now,” she explained. “If we have a question, we Google it and have instant answers, versus using problem-solving skills to think through an answer. I see my daughter having less patience to really sit down and try to figure out homework problems that she struggles with, because she wants an instant answer, and she doesn’t want to wait out the time it takes to figure something out.”

And then there is the “screen time” factor. With television, computer use, video games, iPhones and movies, kids have so much digital exposure already. Add in work throughout much of the day at schools, and she said there is a fear that it could all be too much for young students — not to mention the toll it might take on their health.

On the other hand, digitizing textbooks would make working at home easier.

“This might possibly eliminate the ‘I forgot my book’ excuse for lacking homework and completing assignments in the classroom,” she pointed out.

But access is a whole other issue.

Tates Creek High School teacher Carly Gesin said her fear with digital textbooks is that not all students have reliable computers and Internet access at home.

“It’s a nice idea, but isn’t realistic,” she said. “It’s another thing that people see as the solution to all our education woes, but all it does is create a new set of problems. I’m not saying we shouldn’t head in that direction, but people need to be realistic and conscientious of those issues.”

If that hurdle could be overcome, then digital textbooks could be very cost efficient for everyone to have total access to all classroom books. At her school, she said, physical textbooks are still a must, because iPads or laptops are not provided.

In Fayette County Public Schools, Jack Hays, director of student achievement, said there already are some pockets in the district that have gone digital.

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