Students' backpacks could eventually become a whole lot lighter, thanks to the slowly increasing popularity of e-textbooks in Canada and their availability on electronic readers, smartphones and e-tablets.

With the advent of Amazon's e-reader Kindle, the Apple iPad, iPod and iPhone and the Kobo eReader, the potential for e-textbooks to revolutionize higher learning is significant, say analysts. These products have the ability to store hundreds of e-books, allowing students to simply click through material in textbooks without lugging them to class. 

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While countless fiction and non-fiction books can now be viewed via e-readers, e-textbooks have been slow to catch on. ((Manu Fernandez, Associated Press))

Yet while countless fiction and non-fiction books can now be viewed with e-readers, e-textbooks have been slow to make the transition.  

Slow growth for electronic textbooks

Some e-textbooks, essentially downloadable files of hardcover textbooks that can be viewed online or printed, have been around for almost a decade. They offer students a lower-priced option to hardcover books, as well as viewing flexibility — if students have computer access.

Sold online or in campus bookstores via a pre-paid card with an access number and password, they can be accessed for a semester or school year. But the subscription eventually expires and there is no book to resell to a store or another student, Mark Lefebre, operations manager at McMaster University's Titles bookstore in Hamilton, told CBC News.

"It's tied to convenience — not longevity," he says. "While you're in that course, you can read it on your laptop. But with e-text, it's often tied to a semester."

E-textbooks can offer an interactive learning experience that hardcover books simply can't deliver, says Lefebre.

Many participating publishers — such as McGraw Hill Canada, Wiley Canada, Pearson Education Canada and Nelson Education — offer students the ability to ask questions, provide interactive diagrams and offer pop quizzes to enhance studying. He says the educational process becomes less static, drawing in the student. 

Deals with publishers in which bookstores like Lefebre's can access digital files of textbooks — and print them for a greatly reduced fee — are also a great alternative for cost-conscious students, he says. Through the Espresso Book Machine, a bookstore can have a textbook sent electronically and printed in mere minutes.

"The savings of the publisher and the bookstore get passed on to students," he says.

U.S. taking idea to next level

South of the border, pilot programs involving e-textbooks and handheld devices are picking up steam, though they're still in early days. Some companies, such as CourseSmart, which sells 10,000 e-textbooks online, has developed an iPad app, allowing its material to be viewed via the device.

And a U.S. firm called Inkling offers several e-textbooks that come with the ability to interact with a professor, highlight passages and make notes. So a student can download a book to an iPad and, rather than solely have a file copy, he or she can treat the file just like a textbook.

To date, the company offers just four e-textbooks with these enhanced features, though it plans to increase its offerings in the coming year.

In Canada, the functionality certainly exists — though e-textbooks haven't quite made the leap to handhelds. While e-readers like Kobo come with apps that can convert e-books to other devices like e-tablets and offer interactivity, iPad-accessible textbooks are not yet available.

"We don't sell e-textbooks yet," said Tara Hendela of Apple Canada in Toronto.

Tom Stanton, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education in New York, says the market is ripe. "Our e-book sales represent a small percentage of our higher-education revenue, but that percentage is growing dramatically each year," he says. 

"Through partnerships and the leveraging of new digital platforms and mobile devices, we are already delivering a richer content experience and enhanced functionality to college students in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere."

Stanton says McGraw-Hill offers about 95 per cent of its textbooks as e-textbooks and it is testing e-book reading devices including the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Sony Reader, EnTourage and others.

"Our content is also available via MP3 players, iPhone apps, classroom management systems and a range of online supplemental materials," he says.

Are students ready?

While companies seek to develop better and more accessible e-textbooks and applications that make them more user-friendly, there is some debate as to whether students are ready for them.

Some, like Long Nguyen, a computer science at Toronto's York University, says they can be a great way to reduce one's "environmental footprint," slashing paper use while saving money. "Seeing them on iPad would allow me to justify my upcoming purchase of the device," he says. 

But booksellers report that the demand for regular hardcover textbooks is still strong because students want a tactile entity — and a source of information they can use without logging onto a computer. 

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Booksellers report the demand for hardcover books is still strong because students want a tactile entity and a source of information they can access without logging onto a computer. ((Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press))

"There still seems to be a bit of a preference for studying from a hardcover," says Lefebre.

Meaghan Leonard, an art history student at Carleton University in Ottawa, agrees.

"I'm not currently using them, or e-books of any kind for that matter, and I don't plan on it until I have no other choice. I still handwrite my notes and read my textbooks because that's how I've grown up learning. It's all what you're used to, I guess."

E-textbooks also present certain challenges — such as how to save content when the device powering it malfunctions. As well, at a time when tuition fees are surging, many students feel the sting of buying expensive technological devices such as e-tablets and readers.

And then there are the headaches of charging e-reader batteries and spending time downloading large textbook files.

"If the power goes out, you can still light a candle and study," Lefebre says about  hardcover books. That's just not possible with an e-textbook.