The eTextbook market has been a subject of interest for educators, publishers, distributors, tech companies and students alike. In 2011, the higher education market for eTextbooks grew 44% to $267 million.

So far, eTextbooks have claimed about 6% or so of the total textbook market share. Publishing market research firm Simba Information estimates that this will escalate to 11% in 2013.
Both the public and private sectors are driving rapid adoption.

All major textbook publishers have jumped on board, as have Amazon and Apple. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for rapid adoption, stating that “Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete.” Duncan asserted that this is necessary to keeping American education competitive.

The most recent PISA results found roughly 20 other countries performing significantly better in math and science than the U.S. South Korea, which consistently outperforms the U.S. academically, has set 2015 as a date for full eTextbook adoption.

That the wealthiest country in the world has fallen below average in these key areas has justifiably sparked concern, but can eTextbooks help American schools? If so, what obstacles have to be overcome before we see widespread adoption?

Can eTextbooks address U.S. educational challenges?

A recent paper cited teacher attrition, reading ability, and lack of parental involvement as the three key challenges facing American education. Public disinvestment in education is another.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where eTextbooks have a significant effect on parental involvement or school funding.

However, encouraging reading and literacy is a plausible outcome. Many eTextbooks and reader apps are now incorporating multimedia and interactive approaches that may help facilitate that.

Reducing the staggering 47% of teachers who quit within the first 5 years is another foreseeable outcome. If eTextbooks can help them manage classrooms and better direct their efforts, it may lighten the burden of dealing with growing classrooms. Reader apps are now integrating analytics to help educators do just that.

eTextbooks still face barriers to widespread adoption

Inertia is the perennial obstacle to innovation. In this case, there’s such widespread interest and support from stakeholders in every arena that it may actually be the exception to the rule.

Instead, cost and quality seem to be what’s hindering eTextbook adoption.

Advocates say you can save money on hard copies, but how does that measure up to the cost of devices and eTextbooks? Some say not so well at the moment.

Improving eTextbook quality is another must. Demonstrating value-added through intuitive, user-friendly interactive features like annotations, search, built-in quizzes, multi-media content, links to third-party resources, and social networking capabilities will help engage students and drive sales.

Fortunately, as one publisher put it, everyone and their brother is developing e-reader platforms (we’re no exception: we tried our hand at it and developed a demo / UI prototype for Turn It In, later bought by iParadigms).

Will eTextbooks inevitably replace paper textbooks? Can they help address educational barriers? What features will need to be added or improved to increase market penetration? Let us know in the comments below!