What Is an Electronic Textbook?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An electronic textbook is a digitized version of course materials that can be read on a computer, e-book reader, or similar device. Some textbooks are available in both hard copy and digital form, while others may only be sold in one format. Students can access them from a number of sources including college bookstores, third party textbook sellers, and websites, some of which may provide electronic textbooks free of charge as a public service. Also known as e-textbooks, they tend to be less expensive than equivalent print texts.

Electronic textbooks can be read using an e-reader device.
Electronic textbooks can be read using an e-reader device.

In its simplest form, the electronic textbook is simple a digitized version of the print text. Students can view either text and encounter the same text and illustrations. It's possible to take margin notes or highlight with tools in the e-book reading program the student uses, and location references make it possible to quickly look up information by page or location number. The textbook may come with some extra features like a linked index to allow students to click on index entries to access the relevant pages.

Other texts take advantage of the multimedia format to offer enhanced material to students. This can include everything from a pronunciation guide for vocabulary words to videos of important content. The features offered can depend on the nature of a text. Language students, for example, may have video or audio content to practice and learn vocabulary. Medical students might be able to look at videos of surgeries or demonstrations of medical techniques in an electronic textbook.

When an electronic textbook comes with substantial multimedia content, a print edition may include discs with the same information. This is designed to ensure that students can get the same material no matter which version of the book they use. In other cases, where textbooks are more interactive, it may not be possible to make an equivalent hard copy version with supplemental CD, and a print edition may not be available.

Production costs for textbooks can be extremely high, and the sticker prices on hard copy texts are sometimes a topic of controversy. For some texts, it is necessary to pay license fees to use materials, in addition to paying the textbook authors, editors, and production crews. Costs to update new editions can also be high. Some of these costs are retained with electronic versions, which can make their pricing higher than that of conventional e-books. While an electronic textbook can be less expensive, its cost can still be unexpectedly high for some students.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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