Slope of Enlightenment
UMN Assessment
Doing Well
Time Frame
2 to 5 Years
Last Updated on Sep 12, 2014

The term "e-textbook" has come to mean something different than "e-book." Whereas e-book typically connotes reflowable text and graphics content that is designed to be read on a tablet (like a novel on an iPad or Kindle), e-textbook has come to mean a digital version of a physical textbook for a course at an educational institution.

E-textbooks may be downloadable to a learner's laptop, tablet, or smartphone, but more typically their access is more tightly controlled via a desktop application or browser-based web application.  E-textbooks also attempt to retain a close fidelity to the original physical text's printed page organization and design, either by use of PDF or fixed layout HTML.   Functional advantages of e-textbooks may include searching, personal highlighting, annotation, linking, better access for visually impaired students (via text-to-speech technology), and possible inclusion of audio/video or interactive media.

For instructors, the primary reason to consider e-textbooks (where they are available) is often economic: An electronic version might offer a lower cost alternative to traditional textbook. Still, the used (paper) textbook market may be close in price to an e-textbook, especially if one can re-sell the used book. It is also possible to rent paper textbooks for the duration of the term for competitive prices.  Cost alone may not always favor the e-textbook.

When personally evaluating an e-textbook alternative instructors should ensure that it can be read on their own laptops and/or tablets, and that if special software is necessary, that the software is stable and easy to use.  For many e-textbooks, printing sections costs extra, may be restricted, or may not be allowed at all; do you need parts printed?  If evaluating an e-textbook for a whole class or institution, it is even more important for access via laptop operating systems, browsers, tablets etc. to be as liberal and robust as possible.

Commercial e-textbooks
Commercial e-textbooks are controlled by commercial book publishers, and they don't have an incentive to offer huge cost reductions which may cut into sales of their paper textbooks.  A few major publishers of e-textbooks include McGraw-Hill, VitalSource and CourseSmart, with some utilizing Apple’s free iBook Author software.

For e-textbooks that require purchase, students and faculty may buy them from University of Minnesota Bookstores.  The University of Minnesota Bookstore leads the country in sales of e-textbooks.

It may be important to consider the following when purchasing e-textbooks:

  • E-textbooks are non-returnable, or refundable once accessed
  • Many e-textbooks are subscription based and your access expires after a set number of days (often 180 days)
  • E-textbooks cannot be shared with others
  • E-textbooks do not have any resale or buy back value

Most often, e-textbook contracts are pitched heavily in favor of the publishers: Schools must mandate that everyone in a certain class is charged for the e-text rather than students being able to choose what form of text to buy (or even to buy no text at all).

On the other hand, "open access" textbooks (the analogue of open-source software) created and reviewed by respected faculty, and released as free, modifiable collections have the potential to be very disruptive to the textbook world as Wikipedia was to the encyclopedia world.

E-Textbooks and the University of Minnesota
An e-textbook pilot program was conducted at the University of Minnesota in the Spring of 2012.  About 700 University of Minnesota students participated. The effort was led by Indiana University.  McGraw-Hill provided the e-textbooks which were read through Courseload, an online tool that integrates with Moodle and allows students to highlight, annotate, bookmark, search, and also to consolidate and share study notes.

Owing to accessibility difficulties and poor student feedback (many found the books too cumbersome to use) the program was ended after the pilot.

There is also work being done to advance free, peer-reviewed, open-access textbooks.  The University of Minnesota is seen as a leader in open textbooks. Texts from the open textbook initiative—adopted for use in courses both here and at other institutions—are already generating significant and real savings for students. Examples of such texts include:

This library of e-textbooks is a tool to help instructors find affordable, quality textbook solutions. All textbooks in the library are complete and openly licensed.

In addition, the University Libraries provides access to more than 500,000 ebooks, including some e-textbooks, which are available for use by current students, faculty, and staff.