Students have not yet ditched heavy textbooks, but the options for getting course materials digitally are growing.

One of the biggest bug bears for students is forking out for all the text books they need for their courses. The books cost a small fortune and once their course is over, will probably never see the light of day again.

However, shopping-savvy students increasingly are avoiding the queues and the effect of their wallet choosing to rent or purchase used textbooks online. But as a generation heads to school armed with multiple mobile devices, publishers are beginning to offer digital alternatives to traditional course materials.

Proponents of digital textbooks (or e-textbooks) tout their lower cost, instant accessibility, ecological sense, and potential to transform how students interact with course materials. Not to mention the fact that e-textbooks mean the end of backpacks heavier than a sack of bricks.

A complicated format

Nevertheless, while ordinary e-books are catching on like wildfire - Amazon reported that in July Kindle e-books outsold hardcover books - e-textbooks are not yet pervasive at traditional universities.

The medium presents a unique set of problems. "Textbooks are the most complex e-book that there is out there, with everything from pagination, notation, searching and indexing, copy/paste, the ability to post to social media, and then multimedia like video, audio, pictures, and slideshows... An e-textbook has to put them all in one package and do them well," says Josh Koppel, whose company, ScrollMotion, is working with publishers to bring texts to the iPad.

In a recently released study, the National Association of College Stores found that digital textbooks account for just two to three percent  at member stores.

Part of the difficulty is that "in the higher education market, users' needs are so unique that all the right pieces haven't come into place yet", says Tracey Weber, executive vice president of textbooks and digital education for Barnes and Noble.

"Publishers, teaching staff and students each have a separate set of demands for what an e-textbook should be able to do."

Publishers, for their part, have to contend with the tricky realm of digital rights management (DRM) and strike a delicate balance between protecting copyrights and giving students adequate access for studying effectively. Common restrictions limit the number of devices that the e-textbook can be read on and how much of the text can be printed, shared, and copied/pasted.

Furthermore, though today's students may be tech-centric, they grew up learning from printed materials. Many find it tiring to read on a digital screen for long periods of time, or dislike the limitations of the applications used to read materials.

One well-documented example is Amazon's Kindle DX pilot trial program. Students at seven US universities used the first-generation Kindle DX in place of traditional textbooks and then reported on the classroom effectiveness of the 9.7in e-book reader. The results were underwhelming, as many (though by no means all) students found that the device didn't suit their study habits.

Common complaints included difficulty in using the keyboard to take notes, frustration at not being able to view multiple texts at once, and the cumbersomeness of moving back and forth through the pages.

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