Digital texbooks are gaining ground in education, as shown by a study released by the Book Industry Study Group earlier this year: Students' preference for print text over digital dropped from 72 percent in November 2011 to 60 percent in late 2012.

And a recent EDUCAUSE study finds that students and faculty value lower-cost textbooks -- though they aren't sure that the current digital textbook model will drive prices down.

Last fall, more than 5,000 students and faculty at 23 colleges and universities participated in an e-textbook pilot with EDUCAUSE, Internet2, McGraw-Hill Education and Courseload, and the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) published the findings in Understanding What Higher Education Needs from E-Textbooks: An EDUCAUSE/Internet2 Pilot.

Both students and faculty cited cost as the No. 1 factor they considered when looking at digital textbooks, followed by availability and portability. Some of the biggest barriers to adoption included the funding model and fee structure.

While the students in this pilot didn't have to pay for their e-textbooks, they would pay a mandatory fee per class for e-textbooks outside of the pilot. The mandatory fee guarantees that all the students at a university would purchase a digital textbook and thus give the publisher a larger number of customers. In turn, the publisher would charge the university less for buying in volume.

But in written comments, students said they wanted to be able to opt out of fees and find other ways to get the content. And it's up in the air whether they would take classes with a fee: one-third responding that yes they would, nearly a quarter said no, and 43 percent chose maybe.

Faculty also supported students' desire for less expensive options and choices. And traditional publishing models -- even revised for digital publishing -- may not cut it.

They noted that students look for study materials in many places, which is why it's important to consider other types of course materials besides e-textbooks. And since this is an ever-changing field, education leaders would be wise to consider many business models, as well as the needs of different groups of students and faculty.

One of the keys in making decisions about digital content is "to understand what students and faculty need from these course materials and keep that front and center," said Susan Grajek, vice president of data, research and analytics for EDUCAUSE.

In the ECAR 2012 Study of Undergraduate Students and Technology, 57 percent of students said they wished their instructors used open educational resources more, compared to 47 percent who wanted more e-textbooks. In the previous year, nearly a third of students wanted more e-textbooks, and 19 percent of students wanted open educational resources.

In this pilot, some students and faculty really liked the e-textbooks, and some hated them so much that they bought a print textbook, Grajek said.

Faculty members can be change agents when it comes to different technology, but they need support. In this pilot, faculty members said one of their biggest barriers was limited access to the e-textbooks.

They only had the e-textbooks during the course, so more than half of them didn't make annotations and other notes because they would disappear once the course was over. Interestingly enough, students in 96 percent of the courses used highlights, sticky notes, annotations or bookmarks in their e-textbook.

The changing digital content market, alternative resources, and the needs of students and faculty all play a role in how digital content will play out in higher education. And it's up to university leaders to figure out how to provide resources in a way that addresses the cost, availability and portability concerns of students and faculty.

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.