The OnCampus Research Electronic Book and E-Reader Device survey, conducted in early October, found that only 13% of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous three months. Of that percentage, slightly over half (56%) stated that the primary purpose of their e-book purchase was required course materials for class.
The new survey also confirmed a finding of NACS’ 2010 OnCampus Student Watch survey, conducted last fall, in which 74% of college students preferred print over digital.
The survey is drawing the wrong conclusion by framing the question in terms of media choice. It’s not about print versus electronic. It’s about economics and selection.
Imagine if someone asked you if you wanted to pay more for something and have limited selection. Would you trade a cheaper format with a broader selection for something you’d calculate as more costly and less abundant? Only if you’re a devoted early adopter.
For the vast majority of students, print textbooks are economically superior to e-books simply because there’s a robust used book market for expensive print textbooks. Buy them new, sell them back. Want them cheaper? Buy them used. The market is much more favorable and robust.
As an example, would I buy a $52 e-book when I can buy a $115 print book that has, as its low offer, a used price of $84? With print, I can essentially “rent” a textbook for a semester for $31, an economic edge of $21 over the e-book — and with no upfront cost of an e-reader.
With these economic and retail advantages in mind, it’s easy to rewrite the headline:
Original: E-Books, E-Readers Slow to Catch on with College Students — Study Finds Preference for Print Continues
Rewrite 1: Students Are Practical — Economics of E-books Don’t Beat Those of Print Books, Selection Limited
Rewrite 2: Publishers, Bookstores Continue Chokehold on Students — Pricing, Limited Options Forcing Them to Buy Print
As an aside, I have yet to find this survey released in any form other than a press release. That’s not a good sign. It makes me think the whole thing was about generating the press release.
The report, Learning in the 21st Century: Taking it Mobile! shows that students now view the inability to use their own devices in school, such as cell phones, smartphones, MP3 players, laptops or net books, as the primary barrier to a successful digital education.
Students are willing to pay for technology when there is no analog competitor because the economics are unavoidable. And when there isn’t a viable electronic alternative, students will stick with print.
This isn’t about the media choice, but the economics of the print vs. electronic markets right now. And those economics will change.
Both surveys are to be viewed with a jaded eye, of course. The NACS has a vested interest in printed textbooks, both new and old. Spinning publishing surveys in a manner that extends their market makes sense for them. At the same time, Blackboard, Inc., has a vested interest in online learning moving forward. Their spin is equally self-interested.
Where does the truth reside? Neither of these reports tell us, but they definitely show us how vested financial interests are competing for our students’ pocketbooks. Right now, the economics and selection of print in the textbook market still beats that of electronic. But the Blackboard approach suggests that the premise of students relying on textbooks for learning may be what’s fundamentally flawed in any case.
(Thanks to JS and LS for the pointers.)