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The President of McGraw-Hill Higher Ed Wants a Complete Transition to Ebooks by 2015: Is He a Visionary or Just High?

That’s a long title, sorry. I’m also sorry for taking a School of Doubt sabbatical with a couple of snow days and some personal time combined with a bit of sick leave. But I am back with you now, doubters! Shall we do some doubting together?

Remember when this happened?

It was August 2012, and Brian Kibby, the President of McGraw-Hill’s higher education textbook division, said this astonishing thing:

As I see it, the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems. Aside from the college library, you hopefully won’t be able to find a printed textbook on a college campus in three years. And if you are, we should all be disappointed.


And everyone was, like, “whoa, dude!” because whoa, right? Let me set up my position on the whole digital thing in the interest of full disclosure: I love progress and progressive thinking, and I LOVE technology, including my Kindles. I have a DX and a Fire, the latter for reading at home and the former to take along when travel situations will keep me from a charger for long periods, like a cruise or international flight. Many of my English teacher brethren wax poetic over the printed book, composing encomiums to the smell of dusty pages and the cracking of stiff spines and crying lamentations over the invasion of cold, lifeless, digital invaders. I don’t feel that way, personally. Don’t get me wrong–books are great. I have a houseful, always have. But the important part is the text, and the knowledge and experience created by merging your consciousness with that text. What difference does it really make what you’re holding in your hand as the delivery vehicle for that experience? I read a lot, and I just don’t see the difference.

So Kibby kind of has me at hello, but I think he also is right about this:

There are a few reasons why I think we haven’t seen greater uptake. For one, education is a high-stakes endeavor for students, with important outcomes riding on it. While students may be willing to switch to digital in some aspects of their lives, when it comes to studying, they often want to stick with what they know. There’s also the fact that until recently, the user experience offered by e-books and other digital technology just hasn’t been very good. A glorified PDF of a printed page is not compelling to students.

Kibby certainly seems to understand his main hurdles: simple human resistance to change, fueled in part by our tendency to romanticize old things, plus a medium that has not yet suited itself to academic needs. Indeed, the only corner of my world that necessitates printed text anymore is research. Unfortunately, I spend a significant amount of my reading time on research and course prep, so even my Kindle-championing ass still buys lots of books and print lots of academic articles, because I can’t engage on a research level without producing copious marginalia. Similarly, it’s lovely that so many peer reviewed journals have transitioned to online formats, but if I use an article in my research I have to print it so I can annotate it.

Moreover, academics don’t generally read scholarly books cover to cover like novels. We skim and flip around and read the beginnings of chapters and the ends of chapters and then go back to read certain parts in more depth later. This is harder to do without pages.

The answer, of course, is a revolution in digital textbooks that makes the digital experience more like the print experience without the high cost of printed books or their crippling weight in your backpack. Kibby acknowledges this, which is encouraging, but I’m still not sure what those texts will look like, and I’m not convinced he is either. I mean, I have a Windows 8 tablet PC on which I can use a stylus pretty effectively, but still not as comfortably as a pen on paper. I’m confident that the technology will prevail eventually–and I’m super excited by the idea–but 2015? Not so sure.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. December 8, 2013 at 7:10 pm —

    I also prefer digital texts, but let’s not forget what Deep Throat told us: “Follow the money.” That is, there’s no market in used digital texts. This is an opportunity for publishers to force every student to buy their books from them.

  2. December 9, 2013 at 9:17 pm —

    Oh, it goes even deeper than that! If you check out the article from Kibby, you’ll see that McGraw-Hill has exclusivity deals with several colleges, wherein the digital texts used in their courses are downloaded to students’ accounts when they enroll. It’s actually quite a cool system; students don’t have to go find their books–they just appear–and their accounts aren’t charged for the texts until after the course drop date so there’s no issue of refunds for drops. But, as you say, what this also means is that shopping around for cheaper prices isn’t an option. McGraw-Hill claims this system allows them to always be the cheapest option for these students. Maybe? Not convinced yet.

    • December 14, 2013 at 1:05 am —

      That’s a hell of a circular argument, though, isn’t it? “If we have complete monopoly and have complete control on price, we will have the lowest prices.” Well, yeah. Duh. Not necessarily helpful.

      Aside from that, I’m guessing there’s a built-in termination for e-texts. That’s not cool. I’ve got a few books I deliberately kept after my courses were done because they were great references. Can’t do that with a temporally-linked license.

      • December 14, 2013 at 1:20 am —

        I agree that is super uncool. I guess if students want to keep their textbooks they’ll have no choice but to pirate them.

        In music textbooks (mainly appreciation but also history) there is already an increasing trend to lock recordings up on the publisher’s website, access to which normally expires after the course is over. At least with CDs the students got to keep them (or rip library copies) to add to their collections and maybe give them some chance of re-listening to them in the future. Then again, there will always(?) be YouTube (which has become an amazing resource for music education, even if it poses its own problems).

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