Tablet computers, advocates say, can reduce pack weight, decrease expenses, and increase student engagement through the use of e-textbooks. But a few months ago I wrote a post called, ‘Where are all the e-textbooks?‘ expressing my frustration at the lack of quality e-textbook solutions.


To be honest this was less of a post and more of a protracted rant in which I demonstrated that although creating ePub textbooks is possible using low-cost consumer grade tools few publishers are offering quality products.


So you want to use e-textbooks in the 2011-2012 school year?  Although there are some quality players in the market, no one platform is quite ready for prime time. What options are available?  What are their feature sets? Let’s find out more.


By far the dominant player in the market, CourseSmart offers a huge array of titles for the high school market. Their free iPad / iPhone app (iTunes link) allows you to take notes and has a neat ruler function for keeping your place while reading but you can also read your textbooks on a laptop. Unfortunately the CourseSmart platform is marred by an uninspired translation of print textbook into the digital realm: textbook pages on your iPad look just like the print edition… no interactive content to be found here. Also users need an internet connection to access their textbooks on a tablet and the book vanishes when you are done with the class. That’s right, CourseSmart is a rental model, your book goes away after a period of time set by the publisher (180 or 365 days are typical rental periods).


For title availability and iPad functionality I give CourseSmart an A. But internet required to read books that expire after a set time really hurts. Overall grade: C+.


CK-12 Flexbooks
This up and coming open source text book provider offers free text books in a wide variety of subjects. That’s right – I said free!  Supposedly a community of educators reviews the books for accuracy and you can access the content on a variety of platforms including iPad, Kindle, and on a laptop. Currently they have more than 4500 titles which can be fully customized by the teacher. This is a very cool feature: teachers can mix and match chapters and books to create a fully customized textbook.  Since they support the ePub format iOS users can get the textbooks in iBooks and gain all the note taking and highlighting functions of that app.


For title availability and cross platform functionality I give Flexbooks an A. But right or wrong the platform suffers the same ‘open source’ stigma as Wikipedia and these textbooks don’t come with any supporting workbooks / test banks / audio recordings or other bonus content so near and dear to teacher’s hearts. Overall grade: B-.


This startup garnered recent attention when two major textbook publishers invested in the company. Their free iPad app (iTunes link) frankly leaves me breathless. This is how e-textbooks should be implemented. Inkling doesn’t just transfer a print text book to a tablet computer, it enhances the textbook experience and makes it into something new. Of course you can take notes and highlight, share your notes with others and interact with bonus content like labeled diagrams (hide the labels to quiz yourself), video and audio recordings. End of chapter reviews let you find out if you understand the material and a flexible download scheme allows you to get only the chapters you need, when you need them. Done with a chapter?Delete it from your device and download it again later to prepare for the final exam.


E-Textbooks done right earn Inkling a big A. But significant lack of titles (only 55 at the moment, counting the ones that are ‘coming soon’) mean this product might be one to watch for 2012-2013.  Overall grade: B+.


The bottom line
E-textbooks are here to stay and publishers are definitely realizing there is money to be made in this space. Carefully consider which platform is for you before moving forward but be willing to consider a hybrid model of some print books and some e-textbooks from a mix of platforms. Remember it’s not your job to negotiate with the publishers, your existing textbook middle person is probably already having high level meetings with publishers and app makers. If you are using a provider like for example they can easily pull your list of titles from last year and compare it to the list of available e-textbook titles.


What do you think – will you be using e-textbooks next year? Did we not mention a publisher or app developer that you know of? Do you prefer print texts to their digital counterparts? Let us know in the comments!

Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl

Director of Technology Integration at New Hampton School

I've been an educator since 1995 when I first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then I've been an Outward Bound instructor, a teacher, tutor, admission officer, house head, evening administrator on duty and I ran the experiential learning program at New Hampton School for almost ten years. Today I focus on technology integration centered on values-driven technology integration and 1:1 iPad initiatives. Recently I had the chance to help New Hampton School become an Apple Distinguished School and I co-authored the iBook Teaching with the iPad (available on the iBookstore). Now I'm the founder of a scrappy little company (one employee!) called Hans Mundahl and Associates, inc a digital strategy consultancy for schools and non-profits. My free time is usually spent with my family but I'm also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment. I'm on the Board of Trustees at the Newfound Lake Region Association and when I have the chance I'm an active hiker, climber, and paddler. My writing appears on and I speak frequently at technology and education conferences.