Transitioning Education to eText

etext tabletPrinted text is no longer the absolute that it was ten to twenty years ago with a growing percentage of what we read everyday coming to us in a digital format. Though numbers remain to be confirmed, Amazon has hinted at selling millions of Kindles so far. While the Nook (Barnes and Noble’s weapon of choice for eReaders) and the iPad have entered the market late, they are swiftly gaining ground with a new series of features to differentiate themselves. My friend and fellow architect Brandon Specketer has said, “some things are worth the paper they are printed on,” but that leaves us with a whole range of products that could, and should, transition into the realm of digital media. Textbooks may be one of the best examples in this category, especially when one looks at the full range of “costs” associated with printing educational texts.

Granted, there are some things that earn themselves a place in a physical, printed medium. Text that secures itself as “timeless” (subjective, I know) can find a permanent place on a shelf while text that is decidedly temporary should probably remain that way in digital format. Next to newspapers and magazines, textbooks epitomize this category of the written word. Editions of textbooks only survive for a handful of years before research, information and priorities update them into a new genus of a rather similar product. After that, if it’s lucky, a textbook can live a few more years being cycled through another classroom at an institution that does not demand the most current versions with a likely eventual end in a landfill.

We would be doing ourselves a favor if this type of rapidly changing, supplementary text can just remain in the realm of decoded ones and zeros. Most of us use one of these tomes for a few months before they are out of our lives forever and one semester closer to obsolescence. Better yet, we all know the portion of buddies and pals that slide through classes with nothing more than a smile and thus never even need to open the textbook that they purchased. There is far too much energy plugged into each one to have them end up as a very knowledgeable doorstops.

Textbooks are but one symptom of our country’s addiction to using paper. The United States unabashedly stands as the world’s largest producer and consumer of paper as of 2005 (we are also far and away the largest consumer of water.) As a country we consumer 6 times the international average and 25% more than the next closest competitor per capita (which happens to be Japan.)  Most often, paper use gets a shoulder shrug from many people—after all, it is recyclable, it’s biodegradable and compared to other materials it seems like the good child of U.S. Consumption. Relatively, this may be true but paper still comes with a heavy environmental footprint.

textbook lifecycle diagramA study by CafeScribe, an online purveyor of textbooks, estimates that the average student purchases 17.3 textbooks per year. This seemed a bit high to me, but I was an architecture major in college. For now we can stick with it. With the National Center for Education Statistics pegs total college enrollment in 2007 at 18.2 million students, that’s around 315 million textbooks per year, nearly one for every person in the country. According to the EPA, one ton of textbooks requires 36.09 million BTUs to produce and transport in the U.S. If we combine that with the 11.6 textbooks we get from an average tree, then the grand smash is 27.1 million trees and 5.08 billion kwh. Need a benchmark? That is enough energy to power over 423,000 American homes and enough trees to cover 88 square miles of forest, or 2.5 times the size of Manhattan. A little ridiculous, no?

eTextbooks are still relatively new to the estimated $8.212 billion market for textbooks in the U.S., currently pulling a paltry 0.5% of sales. The mood is shifting fast, though. A study by educational firm Xplana anticipates growth of eTextbooks to 18% of the total market by 2018, nearly one out of every five books sold. Some schools are already getting on the train early. Five colleges, including Princeton University, will be testing new copies of the Kindle DX for textbooks throughout the school in hopes to slash the 15 million pages that Princeton printed last year. (They reportedly spend $5 million a year on paper!) Other colleges include the University of Virgina, Reed, Arizona State, Pace and Case Western.

Due to the valuations of lifestyle choices that Americans have come to build, sustainability measures do not always have the good fortune of adding up to financial incentives. In this case, however, positive economics complement the plan nicely. The emergence of the iPad into the eReader market has lead to the first major price drop in competing consoles pricing the Nook and the Kindle at $149 and $189 respectively as noted by technology blog CrunchGear. In all likelihood it won’t be the last. With an average textbook price of $200 and eBooks that are easily 50% cheaper, those 17.3 textbooks a year could yield a hefty cost savings for students and families. Even if you bought only half of that estimated amount the savings could total over $3,200 for four years of college.

We are left with an eBook trend that could reduce vast amounts of water, energy and waste but could also make education more affordable for hundreds of thousands of students that struggle meeting monetary ends of the growing cost of education. The market is bigger still when we consider elementary schools and high schools, both of which utilize textbooks as teaching aids. This kind of reduction could lower the line items in public school costs that are always finding budgets strapped for every penny. It would also be an easy way for private institutions and municipalities to talk up sustainability efforts while costing them nothing. Politicians can’t hope for plans much better than that.

Photo Credit: Applezombies