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Ebook Adoption Continues a Slow Roll into Public Schools

Even with increased 1:1 laptop initiatives, schools’ purchase and use of ebooks has leveled. A big reason for this is the draconian restrictions book publishers have imposed on ebook lending.

Last year I wrote about delayed adoption of digital textbooks and considered why K-12 education has been slower on the etextbook uptake than some anticipated. 

Similarly, over the past decade, with the advent of Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, many trend-watchers have predicted ebooks would overtake their print counterparts, both in homes and schools. The book publishing industry began preparing for just such a revolution, and some seers heralded the end of the book as we know it. 

But ebooks today account for only 20 percent of the total consumer publishing market and their sales have leveled. According to 2018 survey data gathered by the School Library Journal, school libraries continue to spend about 17 percent of their budgets on ebooks (not including funds their school districts allocate for centralized ebook collections provided via services such as Overdrive.) 

Though one might think publishers would choose to work closely with libraries to leverage ebooks for their patrons, unfortunately, that’s not been the case. Public and school libraries continue to be frustrated by the ebook constraints some publishers have imposed. And a recent decision by Macmillan, one of the “Big 5” publishers, has set a two-month embargo for libraries on new ebook releases, further handcuffing their lending models and exacerbating an already thorny relationship. 

Ebooks have some distinct advantages for K-12 students. Although a lack of ebook reading devices — tablets or laptops — remains a deterrent for students’ ebook use, more schools are implementing 1:1 laptop programs, and school libraries continue purchasing ebook readers for student checkout.   

Advantages of ebooks in schools:

  • Easy access. Students can download their schools’ ebooks from anywhere with an Internet connection. 
  • Ease of use and transport. Unlike lugging heavy textbooks, the mobility provided by carrying one ebook reading device loaded with multiple books is a real advantage. Further, in carrying ebooks, students — especially struggling readers — needn’t reveal what they’re reading.
  • No physical deterioration. Ebooks don’t absorb the same wear and tear as physical books. 
  • Font size adjustment. Depending on their needs, students can change the font size of the text in ebooks.  
  • Built-in dictionary. Clickable dictionaries allow students to immediately look up an unknown word. 
  • Enhanced ebooks. Additional ebook features, such as videos and games, may prove helpful for reluctant or early readers.
  • Availability of free and public domain content. There are some good sources available for free ebooks, as well as the Open eBooks program started by Michelle Obama for schools and libraries serving low-income populations. 
  • Easy access to information. Using hyperlinks and bookmarks, students can quickly access information within ebooks, which is especially helpful for non-fiction texts.    
Schools’ issues with ebooks:

  • Cost and confusion with ebook platforms. Purchasing ebooks for libraries is different than buying for one’s personal use, and knowing which ebook platform is most cost-effective and best-suited for a school’s particular purpose — whole class use vs. individual checkout or two year leases vs. in-perpetuity licenses — remains confusing for many school librarians whose districts don’t provide assistance. 
  • Not enough ebook reading devices. Though more schools have implemented 1:1 laptop programs, and many students have their own devices, students’ access to ebook readers remains an ongoing concern for many schools. 
  • Students struggle with ebook logins. Accessing schools’ ebook collections often requires students to juggle cumbersome password and download procedures.
  • Questions on how students engage with ebooks. Some studies report that students’ comprehension levels drop when reading electronic texts, and others reveal students’ likelihood to become distracted when reading on Internet-connected devices.  
  • Inability to share ebooks with friends. Students complain that ebooks don’t allow for the same easy sharing among friends and classmates as print books.  
Ebook use in schools will certainly continue to increase as educators and students become more accustomed to reading on devices rather than books. But to further libraries’ adoption of ebooks, publishers must stop imposing draconian restrictions on ebook lending processes and re-engage libraries as partners in the cause of promoting literacy. 

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.