Goodbye Wheelie Backpacks: Digital Textbooks Will Dominate Over Paper Ones Soon

Your backpack is about to get (much) lighter. Heavy paper textbooks are about to become collectors’ items thanks to the instant popularity of tablets, and a number of other e-book market trends.


Social learning platform Xplana has been analyzing the digital textbook market, and has concluded that in the U.S. the education publishing market has is reaching a tipping point: Within seven years, digital textbooks will dominate over print.


Xplana’s studies suggest that over the next five years, sales of textbooks to students in the U.S. will slowly migrate to the point that 25% of new textbooks sold are digital versions (in the higher education and career education markets). Inside seven years, the trend will progress to the point that the dominant delivery format for educational texts is not paper, but digits. 

The argument runs like this: The calculation assumes a current market share of 1.5% for digital textbooks as of February 2011, growing to a 3% share by the end of 2011, and a yearly increase of between 80% and 100% for the next four years (reasonable, given projections of the boom in tablet PC sales). The math then includes a tapering growth rate to 25% to 40% annually for the next five years (to match market saturation of tablet PCs and widespread acceptance of digital-format books in the public).

The result is shown in the curve below, and it has one inescapable conclusion: Inside seven years, the e-textbook will rule, and probably within 10 years paper textbooks will be rendered niche products. 

You can argue this is based on hypothetical thinking alone, and Xplana has a vested interest in the matter as it’s all about “21st-century learning.” But the company explains that its conclusions are actually adjusted from a similar calculation made last year, when the it put etextbook market share at only 20% on the same timescale. It explains the adjustment is due to “new developments and higher-than-expected trending in recognized market variable areas.” These areas include higher-than-expected e-reader sales (championed by Amazon’s Kindle), a booming textbook rental market, the rise of the Epub3 digital book standard, and new advances in “open education resources” and open-rights textbooks–attractive to school boards because of low or zero costs.

But what seems to be the dominant factor that’s changing things? The iPad. Last year’s calculation was made before the iPad arrived, sold by the tens of million, and changed portable computing. Purists argue that reading books on the iPad screen is not ideal, and other people will claim that devices like the Kno–with a more precise stylus-based input system–is a better fit for educational markets. But compared to the Kindle, editing content, recording audio, and accessing rich graphics in textbooks is much more possible on the iPad, and adds genuine educational value to e-textbooks). And unlike the Kno, the iPad is actually available for purchase. 


The overall trend is even more plausible when you read headlines like the The New York Times‘ “Math that moves: More schools embrace the iPad” and Newsweek‘s “Textbook’s digital future,” and remember how many schools and colleges are rushing to embrace the iPad.

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