Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years
As the technology underlying electronic readers has improved and as more titles have become available, electronic books are quickly reaching the point where their advantages over the printed book are compelling to almost any observer. The convenience of carrying an entire library in a purse, pocket, or book bag appeals to readers who find time for a few pages in between appointments or while commuting. Already firmly established in the public sector, electronic books are gaining a foothold on campuses as well, where they serve as a cost-effective and portable alternative to heavy textbooks and supplemental reading selections.


Electronic books have reached mainstream adoption in the consumer sector; in 2009, the Kindle was Amazon.com’s best selling product, with more than 390,000 titles available. The very first electronic versions of books were those digitized by Project Gutenberg in the 1970s. Electronic books were meant to be read using a computer until the late 1990s; at that time, special devices for reading electronic books, known as e-readers or simply readers, began to appear on the market. The latest readers offer a high fidelity reading experience that offers most of the affordances of the printed book, with enhancements like wireless connectivity and ample storage that allow the typical device to hold more than 1,000 titles.

This ready availability of a selection of capable readers is one of the factors contributing to the success of electronic books. Not only are there many models available to please a variety of tastes ⎯ besides the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, the new Barnes & Noble Nook, and a number of reader applications for iPhones, Android phones, and other smartphones have entered the market ⎯ but the capabilities of readers have advanced to the point where the experience truly rivals that of reading a paper book. Paper and ink color, font, type size, even the way pages are turned, are all customizable. Text is clear and crisp, with enough contrast to make it easy to read, and the devices are comfortable to hold for long periods of time.


Supported by such a wide variety of readers, electronic books have enjoyed a dramatic rise in popularity over the last year — Kindle editions, for example, now account for half of Amazon’s sales of books available both in print and for the Kindle. Readers of electronic books may be reading more, as well. Kindle owners, according to Amazon, buy three times as many books as they did before they had Kindles; Sony reports that Reader owners download about eight books per month ⎯ as compared to fewer than seven books per year purchased by the average American book buyer in 2008, according to a New York Times article.

The list of available titles, already broad and growing rapidly, is spurring that interest. Virtually all new books are available in electronic form, as well as classics, and popular books from the last 50 years. Collections of copyright-free texts, including great works of literature, are available at little or no cost. Publishers are releasing more titles in electronic formats as the popularity grows, leading to a wider selection of current books and new releases. Cost is generally a little lower than buying a paperback edition.

Wirelessly connected readers make purchasing an electronic book a simple matter, often delivering a new volume in less than a minute. Purchases can be made at any time, from virtually any location, at no additional cost, and with no subscription or access fee. The convenience of having an entire library of books, magazines, and newspapers — each remembering exactly where you left off the last time you looked at them — and all in a single, small device is one of the most compelling aspects driving electronic reader sales.

Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Inquiry

While the typical electronic reader could conceivably hold the entire sum of textbooks and readings for the entirety of one’s academic experience, campuses have been slower to adopt electronic books than the general public for three primary reasons, but all of them are becoming less of a constraint.

The primary obstacle was simply availability. While a great variety of consumer titles are available electronically, textbooks or academic works have been published in electronic formats far less frequently. Secondly, as the reader technology developed, the ability to easily render high quality illustrations was initially limited. The last obstacle was related to the publishing model. Where electronic versions were available, they were most commonly viewed as ancillary to the printed version, which had to be purchased before the electronic version could be accessed — and the early versions were not in formats compatible with most readers.

Over the past year or so, however, those obstacles have each started to fall away. Many academic titles are now available, and many more are in the pipeline. Amazon, for example, now lists some 30,000 academic titles; all of the major textbook publishers have electronic versions in the Amazon education catalog. Advances in electronic reader technology have brought electronic versions of academic texts to a level with printed ones. The newest readers can display graphics of all kinds and make it easy to bookmark and annotate pages and passages. Annotations can be exported, viewed online, shared, and archived. In addition, electronic readers offer keyword searching, instant dictionary lookups and, in some cases, wireless Internet access. The experience of reading and note taking is becoming as easy in electronic form as it is in paper. Major publishers have largely uncoupled print and electronic sales of academic texts as well.

An encouraging number of colleges and universities are running pilot programs with electronic books. The Kindle DX, a larger format version of the device expressly built for academic texts, newspapers, and journals, is being piloted at Arizona State University, Ball State University, Case Western Reserve University, Pace University, Princeton, Reed College, Syracuse University, and the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Northwest Missouri State University and Penn State have embarked on pilots using the Sony Reader. Johns Hopkins is piloting the enTourage eDGe, which combines the functions of an e-reader, a netbook, a notepad, and an audio/video recorder and player in one handheld device. Many other similar projects could be listed here, as the number of campus-based evaluation pilots is large and growing rapidly.

An obvious draw for students is the advantage of having a single handheld reading device that can easily accommodate the entirety of readings involved in one’s study, as well as all the essential reference texts. In a pilot program, Seton Hall University's Teaching, Learning & Technology Center found that students appreciated the ability to store and review a semester's worth of material in electronic form.

A survey of current projects shows that electronic books are being explored in virtually every discipline, although full-scale movement to electronic books is still two to three years away. A sampling of projects includes the following:

  • Extracurricular Reading. The library at Fairleigh Dickinson University offers a selection of electronic readers that students may check out, including Amazon Kindles, Sony Readers, and iPod Touches. Each reader includes a selection of reference books, popular titles, literature, and more.
  • Foreign Language. First-year French students at the University of Texas at Austin use an online interactive textbook with a print-on-demand component, available in color or black-and-white. The online portion includes audio clips of each part of the text and video clips to explore the culture of France (http://www.laits.utexas.edu/fi).
  • Humanities. The Humanities E-Book (HEB), offered to institutions on a subscription basis by the American Council of Learned Societies, is a digital collection of 2,200 humanities texts. Students at subscribing institutions may browse and read the collection online or order printed copies on demand.
  • Physics. MIT, in conjunction with Ball State University, produced an electronic book to visually demonstrate the principles of electricity and magnetism.(http://web.mit.edu/viz/EM/flash/E&M_Master/E&M.swf).

Electronic Books in Practice

The following links provide examples of the use of electronic books for educational purposes.

Darden Students Test the Amazon Kindle DX
The University of Virginia's Darden School of Business is participating in an Amazon-sponsored program to test the Kindle DX. The pilot aims to assess the effect of electronic books on teaching and learning, determine whether the school can reduce its carbon footprint by employing the devices, and explore potential cost savings for students and the university.

DeepDyve is an extensive online collection of scientific, technical, and medical research. Articles are either open access or premium; premium articles may be rented and read online for twenty-four hours at a cost of $0.99.

Sony Reader Project at The Penn State University Libraries
Students may check out a Sony Reader from the library, complete with leisure reading titles including both fiction and non-fiction.

Sophie is an open source tool, maintained by the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, for creating and reading rich media documents in a networked environment. Sophie authors can easily combine a variety of media — text, images, video, and audio — to develop sophisticated multimedia works.

Swapping Textbooks for E-books
(Lee Copeland, EDTECH, March-April 2009.) In a pilot program at Northwest Missouri State University, 500 of the school's 6,500 students will receive electronic textbooks instead of, or in some cases in addition to, printed copies.

For Further Reading

The following articles and resources are recommended for those who want to learn more about electronic books.

7 Things You Need To Know About Sony Readers in a Higher Ed Environment
This white paper from the Penn State University Libraries describes relevant uses of Sony's Reader in the classroom, in the library, and as a tool for the visually disabled. Pros and cons of using e-books are discussed.

Clive Thompson on the Future of Reading in a Digital World
(Clive Thompson, Wired Magazine, 22 May 2009.) Thompson makes a case for digitizing books: in addition to enhancing sales of the printed book, e-books enable ongoing reader dialogs.

Devices to Take Textbooks Beyond Text
(Anne Eisenberg, The New York Times, 5 December 2009.) New e-book readers, in addition to displaying standard text, offer liquid-crystal displays to better show graphics and other items found in color in textbooks.

E-Book Fans Are Proving to be Enthusiastic Readers
(Brad Stone, The New York Times, 20 October 2009.) Fans of e-readers suggest that the convenience of using these products, which offer a sense of control and customization that consumers have come to expect from all their media gadgets, has created a greater interest in books.

How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write
(Steven Johnson, The Wall Street Journal, 20 April 2009.) While electronic readers satisfy our desire for instant gratification, they may compromise the sanctity of an author, a reader, and a book. The author predicts that electronic books will fundamentally change the way we interact with the printed word.

Kindle for the Academic
(Alex Golub, Inside Higher Ed, 3 November 2009.) The author discusses the pros and cons of electronic readers, particularly the Kindle, from the point of view of a reader of academic works (as opposed to textbooks or leisure reading).

Students Give E-readers the Old College Try
(Columbia Daily Tribune, 20 October 2009.) Students weigh in on the Kindle. Included are benefits and drawbacks from a number of participants in this year's Kindle pilot program.

Delicious: Electronic Books
Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz10” and “ebooks” when you save them to Delicious.

Posted by NMC on January 14, 2010
Tags: chapters

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[...] – Three Years: Electronic Books and  Simple Augmented Reality. This is another exciting trend. The growth of e-books has been [...]

January 20, 2010 6:04 am

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February 3, 2010 5:57 pm
Jean-Claude on paragraph 4:

That doesn’t mean that before Kindle, people read less. Those who bought fewer than 7 books a year may have been sharing books with others to cut down on expenses. Now that electronic books are available for free, people don’t need to borrow from each other.

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October 22, 2010 8:01 pm

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