4 Reasons to Transition to Digital Textbooks in 2021

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The past year has been filled with upheaval and transition for educators of all levels. K-12 teachers and young students had to adapt to lengthy video call sessions and full days online, while college professors had to pivot to convey complex material remotely.

During this era of digital learning, professors have adopted new tools at lightning speed to engage students and enhance the learning process. As we reflect on 2020 and move into the new year, it’s wise to take stock of your teaching tools (tech and otherwise) to evaluate whether everything is meeting your expectations and needs. 

For instance, if you’re still including the same print textbook in your course syllabus, it may be time for an upgrade. Even before the mass movement to virtual classrooms, digital course materials have been growing in popularity due to their enhanced convenience, flexibility, and affordability.

Whether your 2021 classroom will be in-person, online, or hybrid, digital course materials will unlock numerous benefits for you and your students.

Specifically, digital course materials outshine other options because they are:

  1. Less expensive than traditional options.
  2. More convenient for students.
  3. In sync with innovative instructional design trends
  4. Custom-curated for your unique course.

While these benefits are helpful in the COVID-19 era, the advantages of digital textbooks will long outlast the pandemic. Even once in-person classes resume, students and professors will still appreciate the convenience of digital course materials. 

Less expensive than traditional options.

When assigning the required textbook for your course, there are a number of key factors to consider. In a perfect world, you’d only need to assess whether or not the material aligns with what you want to teach, but in reality, you also need to evaluate the cost and availability of the book. 

The cost of physical textbooks is notoriously high, partially due to the handful of major publishers that dominate the industry. According to the College Board, students at four-year institutions spend an average of $1,298 on books and supplies each year. 

If you have to assign a textbook with a high price tag, you risk many students being unable or unwilling to purchase the required materials. As discussed in this guide to digital course materials, 65% of college students have avoided purchasing materials for a class due to cost concerns. 

Textbook cost matters. Without the required reading, students will struggle to learn the material and may perform poorly in the course. Not only does this negatively affect learning outcomes, but it may also even have consequences for end-of-semester course evaluations. 

On average, digital course materials are far less expensive than their physical counterparts. However, the cost has a wide range. E-textbooks from traditional publishers often have similar price tags to traditional books, while open educational resources (OERs) are free but vary widely in quality. Your best bet is to find a middle ground that prioritizes quality while also keeping costs low.

Affordable course materials are helpful for all levels of education. In college classrooms, you won’t force students to choose between their education and their next meal, and in K-12 environments, there will be less of a need for school fundraisers to close gaps in the textbook budget.

More convenient for students

In addition to being more affordable, digital course materials are more convenient and easier to access than physical books.

When trying to acquire textbooks at the start of the semester, students have to contend with long lines at the campus bookstore or lengthy shipping estimates from online retailers. If something goes wrong (and we’ve all experienced a package getting delayed in the mail), students may not have the required material by the time they need it in class. Then, if the textbook was rented, students have to return it at the end of the semester and won’t be able to reference it for future classes.

To avoid these pitfalls, look for digital course materials that provide day one and lifetime access to the content. Students will be able to reference important information as soon as the course starts and won’t lose access once the semester is over. Some digital textbooks from traditional publishers only provide limited semester-long access, so be sure to take this feature into consideration.

Additionally, physical textbooks are heavy and cumbersome to carry around, while digital course materials can be accessed from anywhere. In an asynchronous learning environment, students will appreciate the ability to work on course materials from any location.

If you choose to make the move to digital textbooks, however, you’ll also need to consider how students will be engaging with them. With the huge rise in smartphone web traffic, it’s especially important to choose digital course materials that offer a user-friendly mobile experience. According to Morweb’s guide to the best college websites, mobile optimization is increasingly important to reach students. Many digital course materials offer web and mobile applications for on-the-go access.

In sync with innovative instructional design trends.

Even aside from the massive changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the field of instructional design (ID) has been focused on online learning experiences for decades.

As ID best practices continue to evolve, digital course materials can help you stay on the cutting edge—no new annual textbook edition required.

Specifically, digital textbooks can help you incorporate the following ideas from Skyepack’s list of up-and-coming instructional design trends:

  • Content curation. Instead of creating new material or relying on a single source, it’s becoming more common to curate existing high-quality, authoritative content into comprehensive course materials.
  • Video. Video consumption (especially on mobile) is on the rise, and this is also true of educational video. Video is one of many multimedia elements that can be included to enrich digital course materials.
  • Interactive learning. Students should be able to engage with course content rather than simply reading it. Interactive elements like drag-and-drop activities or short comprehension quizzes give students a chance to test their knowledge.
  • Rapid development. Instructional design moves fast—much faster than the traditional publishing industry can keep pace with. Digital course materials can be quickly developed with an iterative and informed design process to continually evolve alongside your subject matter.
  • Measurement and analytics. There’s a lot to learn from how your students learn. Unlike a traditional book, digital course materials allow you to gather and leverage data about how your students are performing.

Adopting these trends will help you increase student engagement and enhance learning outcomes. As new tech continues to emerge, digital textbooks will be able to take advantage of innovations while traditional books take much longer to adapt. Some experts even predict that paperless schools will be the future of education!

Custom-curated for your unique course.

Finally, traditional textbooks are a one-size-fits-all approach. When it comes to the specific needs of your students, your classroom, and your overall campus, finding a textbook that addresses all three is like finding the holy grail.

With digital textbooks, you won’t need to worry about settling for a book that mostly aligns with your syllabus or sending out PDF documents to fill in content gaps.

Custom-built digital course materials eliminate the burden of searching for the “perfect” textbook. An instructional design team can walk you through a custom curriculum development process that prioritizes the needs of your unique course every step of the way. This process includes analyzing and researching your students’ needs and subject area, designing the flow of material, curating content from high-quality sources, and building and launching the course.

This process is a cycle, so digital course materials can be continuously improved over time. As your syllabus changes or new research arises in your field, you’ll be able to integrate these updates without finding a new textbook altogether.

In summary, digital course materials have clear advantages over traditional textbooks. They are more affordable and more convenient for students, and they allow professors to take advantage of instructional design trends within a custom-built course. As we continue to explore new classroom technologies in 2021, digital course materials are an important innovation to keep on your radar.


Brady Kalb, CEO Skyepack
Brady is a "reformed engineer turned entrepreneur". After engineering gigs at two Fortune 100 companies, Brady left the corporate world to pursue a business degree and seek out new challenges. Brady's passion for education stems from his desire to "always be learning" and find innovative solutions to difficult problems. Brady enjoys family outings to the park, explaining the answers of "Life, the Universe, and Everything" to his daughters, and reading just about anything (favorites are classics, popular fiction, and biographies).
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