Extract: Click on the graphic to see the full graphic

Onlineteachingdegree.com has produced another interesting graphic comparing the costs of iPads to textbooks. It argues that textbooks are 41 per cent cheaper than iPads.

This is an interesting comparison, but it only makes sense if the iPad is seen merely as a replacement for the textbook, which it is not. It has many other features that could be used in a school, college or university. However, the overall point is a good one. iPads are too expensive at the moment for every student to have one.

Doing similar calculations though for a simple e-book reader such as the Kindle ($129 in Canada) or the Kobo Touch ($100) does bring the price down to a point where it would make sense to replace textbooks with e-readers – provided that the textbooks are available as e-books and at a reasonable price, which they are not yet. (But see Rice University develops free online textbooks)

Currently with e-books we are in a classic technology development phase, where the costs are too high for widespread take-up, and the necessary concomitant changes in an industry are not yet in place. However, several things will happen to change this.

  • First, the iPad or something like it (iPad 3? Android x?) will become cheaper and will have more functions, gradually replacing the use of laptops in most educational institutions; using multi-functional tablets for interactive, multimedia textbooks will become one application of many. Time horizon (for widespread adoption): 3-5 years
  • ‘specialized’ low-cost tablets will be compete with the iPad and other high-end tablets, and will provide an economical way to access e-textbooks. Time horizon: now for the hardware, but cheap e-textbooks are not currently available, so see below
  • new forms of open publishing will drive down the cost of textbooks, whether in print or electronic form, to the point where printed textbooks are really coffee-table books for specific purposes. Time horizon: 3 years. (In other words, we will go back to a pre-print age of just one copy in the library.)
  • eventually, textbooks as we know them (a single, comprehensive source for a whole course) will disappear altogether, to be replaced with modular collections of multi-media digital material that can be searched and combined at will by both teachers and learners. (These might even be called ‘open educational resources’.) Time horizon: 10 years. The problem is not the technology, which is available now, but the need for educators to understand the value proposition.

So we are not there yet, but e-textbooks are coming, probably within 3-5 years for general use. But they won’t be with us for long.


  1. I wish I could disagree with your last time horizon of 10 years for the “textbook” model to disappear completely, but I think it’s mostly correct. I’d add that it is not only the time for educators to understand the value, but for new economic models to emerge, and others (like “course”) to break down further. But as I try to argue in my own latest series of posts, this needn’t be an either/or proposition either; multi-format outputs are already extremely viable, and indeed if we let it become so its only because we’ve agreed to position ourselves simply as consumers of textbooks and knowledge.

  2. Hi Tony,

    Digital books aren’t just more convenient to carry around with you, they are also significantly cheaper to rent or buy, relieving students’ burden in more than one way. Please take a look at how digital books are changing the classroom: http://www.onlineuniversities.com/digital-classroom. As always, if you like the infographic, feel free to publish it for your readers on Online Learning and Distance Education Resources!

    Thanks and all the best,


    Muhammad Saleem

  3. Yeah this study predicts most textbooks will be digital by 2018 or so:

    However, recent articles have suggested e-books (+e-readers) aren’t that much cheaper, especially when you factor that students can sometimes re-sell their textbooks. Indeed there is even a Department of Justice and European Union investigation into Apple and e-book pricing, alleging collusion between the publishers on pricing. Like Scott, I’d like to see ways to make it easier for teachers and students to create their own digital textbooks, via wikis and the like.


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