An electronic textbook (eTextbook) is a course text that you would access via a computing device and is potentially accessed over the web. For example, rather than carrying your physics textbook to class, you carry your tablet with your physics book loaded on it. Depending on where you get your eTextbook, sometimes there are also options for printing, or ordering a printed bound copy.

Students studyingThe most common way students are accessing eTextbooks now is through eTextbook online suppliers, such as CourseSmart, Inkling, or These textbooks are accessible from devices such as computers, tablets, smartphones and sometimes eReaders. In this case, students are likely assigned a traditional book for one of their classes, but they go to these providers for the option of renting/buying it in eTextbook form.

Faculty can seek out eTextbooks to use on their own, or request a digital option through the University Book Store. For more information about this, contact your campus' University Book Store.

Best Practices

Instructors can use the web based platforms that are frequently paired with eTextbooks to assign homework. These assignments alter the question slightly for each student, allowing students to work together on problems while avoiding students simply copying the final answer. 

Some eTextbooks are even beginning to offer analytics to the instructors giving them the ability to see how, and when, the students are utilizing the textbooks. An Article in the New York Times talks about an instructor who was able to notice particular habits that his student had by using the analytics offered by CourseSmart. One student in particular stood out, though the student had high marks, the analytics showed that he had only viewed the text once, allowing the instructor to have a discussion with the student about their study habits.

Student Benefits

  • Students wouldn’t need to worry about the book being in stock; they can purchase and download a copy at any time.
  • eTextbooks are cheaper than their traditional paper versions.
  • Many textbooks can be stored on a tablet or eReader reducing the weight student need to carry around campus.
  • Specific content can be easily found using a search function.


  • eTextbooks cannot be sold back
  • A laptop, tablet, or eReader would be required in order to view the textbook during class.
  • Students generally prefer the feel of traditional textbooks.

While eTextbooks come with advantages over the paper variety, some students still prefer the tactile feel of a traditional textbook. If you plan on using eTextbooks it may be helpful to offer a traditional textbook as well for those students who don’t wish to use an electronic version.


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Open Source Textbooks

Open source textbooks (or simply open textbooks) are online textbooks which are released under licensing that allows instructors to access, distribute, or modify the textbook's content (eliminating chapters which will not be used, adding instructor notes, etc.) for little or no cost. This, in turn, allows students to also access the materials at little or no cost. Of course, this depends on the license the individual has put on their book, but this applies to most open textbooks at the moment.

Open textbooks, along with eTextbooks, are an emerging technology. Although they provide a low-cost alternative to the traditional textbook, there is some debate around the quality and credibility of open textbooks. With some sites, anyone can write their own textbook and self-publish it on an open textbook site. Currently, there is discussion going on about how to best analyze these books for credibility.

Best Practices

Open-source textbooks cost students very little and are often free when viewing them online. This can allow an instructor to pick and choose content from different sources, depending upon preference and relevance to the course content, without having to worry about burdening the student with additional expenses.

Instructors are able to get material edited in case any error is found, or if new information needs to be added.  This keeps the open-source textbook up to date and removes any errors that may cause confusion. As a result of the editable nature of the open source textbook, instructors should look over any content they wish to use in their course to insure that no incorrect information was mistakenly added to the textbook. This, of course, may require a significant amount of work, and therefore is a drawback to using open-source eTextbooks.


  • The price of the open-source text book is very low or often times free.
  • Information is updated rapidly by instructors, no longer needing to wait for a new edition to correct mistakes.
  • Students are sometimes able to have a printed version of the book shipped to them for an additional fee.
  • Multimedia content can accompany the textbooks.


  • Quality can be an issue, due to the open-source nature of the textbook.
  • Students would need a desktop/laptop computer or tablet in order to read the book if a printed version cannot be purchased.

Open Textbook Sites

Connexions: With Connexions, learning professionals create "collections"- a term which is broadly used and can mean eTextbooks, full courses, journals, or whatever the author wishes them to be. These collections are made up of modules, which are short lessons, assignments, labs, etc. The collections and modules are downloadable for offline reading in either PDF or EPUB formats. Both are compatible with most eReaders (note: the Kindle will not read EPUB format, only PDF. However, most other readers should be able to recognize either one.

Flat World Knowledge: Flat World Knowledge is a popular and flexible open source textbook site. It allows instructors to select a textbook and adopt it for use in their class. Students can access to the books by registering on the site and either 1) reading them online, 2) printing copies out themselves, 3) turn the books into audio files, 4) ordering them as an eBook, or 5) ordering hard copies of the books in color or black and white for $1.99/chapter.

Textbook Media: Certain books from publishers are licensed to Textbook Media so that the user can access them for very cheap- or free! The books are available in the combinations of different formats, including a sponsored or non-sponsored online book, a PDF file, a printable book, a pre-printed book, or smartphone apps.


Links/Further Reading

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