The time of college students lugging thick textbooks across campus may soon be coming to an end. Many of the top textbook publishers, including McGraw-Hill Education, are seeing their sales of digital products outpace print copies for the first time ever. As the balance shifts in favor of digital textbooks, 100% adoption of electronic text on campuses, in classrooms and across school districts may not be far off.
In 2015, McGraw-Hill Education sold more units of digital learning material than physical copies of textbooks and other print products, InsideHigherEd reported. This is in line with McGraw-Hill’s 2014 sale breakdown where a greater percentage of revenue came from its digital products than print. McGraw-Hill offers a number of digital learning tools in addition to simple text e-books, including ALEKS, Connect, LearnSmart and SmartBooks, which also sold well in 2015.
Publishers don’t expect these numbers to be a flash in the pan. The trend is likely to continue in 2016 as early sales results come in, CEO and President of McGraw-Hill Education David Levin said in a statement.
“Our transition to providing digital products that offer better outcomes at meaningfully lower prices is going really well,” Levin explained. “In fact, as students returned to college in early 2016, they activated 1.2 million subscriptions to our Connect platform during January and February, a double-digit increase over the previous year.”
McGraw-Hill is not the only publishing company seeing a rise in their digital sales, InsideHigherEd noted. Cengage Learning and Pearson also have experienced increases in digital sales. Cengage told InsideHigherEd that they’re seeing increased interest in digital materials from both students and educators. As digital tools continue to improve and become more convenient, this trend should only grow, Cengage stated.
However, InsideHigherEd did note that accounting for digital sales can be complicated, as some digital products are bundled with print or used textbooks when sold, leading critics of digital textbooks to say that the industry is still driven by print sales despite the new numbers.
But it’s not just publishers who are excited to see the growing adoption of digital learning materials; many in education have been eager to embrace this new generation of textbooks because it offers massive schools savings.
According to a Federal Communications Commission evaluation of the Project RED study and the government industry-led LEAD Commission, digital learning material-rich education can offer about $250 in savings over traditional education per student per year.
Today, providing an education with textbooks, paper, technology and connectivity costs schools an estimated $3,871 per student per year, the LEAD Commission reported. The new teaching approach featuring digital learning material, devices and connectivity would only cost $3,621, still less than traditional learning at $3,811 per student per year, as the evaluation concluded using conservative estimates.
In addition to cost savings, adopting digital learning materials can make updating teaching materials easier, and also provide a wider selection of materials and features, as well as increase interactivity and convenience.
Huntsville, Alabama’s school district is doing something that most districts aren’t: getting rid of textbooks. The Huntsville City school system is replacing 100% of the traditional textbooks with digital alternatives, local news station WHNT reported.
Starting in 2012, the school system began issuing laptops to all students from 3rd to 12th grade as part of the new digital curriculum. As the move towards 100% digital class materials progressed, textbooks that were still being used in the classroom were slowly moved to the library instead, and as of early April 2016, teachers have been asked to move all textbooks to the library. This way, though physical textbooks will no longer be used in the classroom, students will still be able to take out the books as needed. The school will monitor the outcome of the program.
This 100% digital approach has not been without its critics. In higher education, most students who use digital learning materials are doing so solely because of its lower cost and greater convenience, according to a two-year study at the University of Central Florida from 2012 to 2014. Few students chose to adopt digital materials because of interactive features or professor mandates; in fact, the study found that some professors specifically don’t allow digital materials in their classrooms because of an alleged distracting effect on the classroom.
In addition, depending on how schools or classes implement the adoption of digital learning tools, there can also be a high barrier to use. Although the cost of individual materials can be lower than their print equivalents, the devices — such as e-readers, tablets, laptops and smartphones — that digital learning materials are designed for can be expensive. But as technology becomes more commonplace, trends indicate that the sales of digital textbooks will continue to outpace the sales of physical ones.