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When faced with a cloud of new emerging technologies, educators can easily get lost in what technologies are worth pursuing and what future trends will develop. Each year, The Horizon Report outlines the most promising emerging technologies in education. This year’s edition, The Horizon Report: 2010 Edition, alludes to six burgeoning technologies that will find a place in education over the next few years. One of the discussions centered around electronic books.

I would argue that the trend to adopt electronic books will be the “hurricane of the future,” rather than merely being a wave of the future.  Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, recently stated in a Newsweek interview that he believes ebooks will eventually force traditional books (i.e., ink-on-paper books) to “go away.” During this interview, he also speculated that ebooks would soon outsell print books on Amazon.com, and on Christmas Day 2010, ebooks outsold traditional books for the first time. The diagram of e-book sales, pictured above, demonstrates a rapid increase in popularity. In addition, a recent ECAR study on e-books clarified that consumers now use the Internet as the primary path to purchase books, whether traditional or electronic. This trend demonstrates that how consumers buy content (i.e., over the Internet) is changing more rapidly than what they buy (i.e., traditional vs. e-books).

Publishers are obviously fighting this wave because a large portion of ebooks downloaded are free. As stated in a recent Washington Post article, consumers prefer a large selection of books that are inexpensive, authors desire a greater portion of revenue, and publishers are fighting to retain their profit share. The most popular price point for ebooks is $0.00, and consumers have made it clear that $9.99 (the price point of most best-sellers) is still considered too high.

This dance between consumers, creators, and publishers has already been performed in the music, movie, and television industries. To a large degree, the “ink-on-paper” book is one of the last great bastions of analog technology. The music industry finally figured out that massive amounts of overhead costs could be saved by converting media to a digital format and disbursing it through the internet. Television shows and the movie industry have followed suit. At some point, the market will force publishers to go in this direction, either of their own volition or through market forces.

In the future, ebooks are only going to rise in popularity. Publishers would benefit most by riding this wave, rather than fighting the hurricane. While publishers seem to be solely focused on securing rights, maximizing royalties, and maintaining control, a revolution is taking place in the entire method of delivery, which makes many of these concerns obsolete.Picture of books and apple

What do students prefer in an electronic reader?

A recent ECAR study discussed the preference of students in relationship to electronic readers, which reveals mixed reactions. In short, students desire the e-readers to resemble traditional books in many areas such as quality and functionality. Specifically, the preferred e-textbooks were ones that offered the capacity for comprehensive note-taking, the capability to flip and highlight pages with ease, and the functionality of a color screen that was easy to read. The sacrifice of purchasing an expensive e-reader seemed to offset by the potential to make long-term savings in the purchase of books.

How will this trend affect higher education?

Kevin Carey wrote a fascinating article entitled “What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers’ Decline.” The general premise of the article is that institutions that form over a long period of time and have a strong history tend to believe that they will always be around, newspapers would be the case in point. Universities need to consider books as a tool for learning. Having said that, e-books have a different set of benefits to aid learning versus traditional books. Currently, both have a place, but failing to recognize the pros and cons of each limits the possibilities of learning. As the ECAR study recorded, Henry Ford taught that people do not usually demand technologies that they have not experienced, yet in future years, these same individuals cannot imagine life without such technology. He was speaking about the car. Current society has seen this with the Internet. Will future generations one day view electronic readers this way? E-books are in their infancy, so it is way to early to make this assumption.

Is it time to take a leap of faith?

I personally do not think we are ready to take the plunge into e-books yet. I have yet to see a device that can outperform a traditional ink-on-paper book. No doubt, industry is slowly gaining ground with the latest Kindle and Apple’s iPad. The market forces have not made enough ground to justify the deletion of traditional books on campus. Also, the adoption cycle of books and technology must be considered.

Campuses should not ignore the potential of e-books, yet they should proceed with caution. Pilot programs give the zealous an outlet for now, but the university system as a whole will need to wait until the battle field clears.

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