Guidance Regarding Electronic Textbooks and Readings, July 2010

Market offerings of electronic versions of textbooks and other reading materials for higher education are no longer be rare but moving rapidly into the mainstream. As with most things, this is happening with a great deal of variability across disciplines, publishers, and other dimensions. This document provides some guidance for faculty regarding factors to consider when selecting textbooks and other reading materials for classes at Michigan State University (MSU), and may also be useful to students who are considering purchase of an e‐reading device. For simplicity, “e‐texts” will be used to refer to all forms of electronic materials in this document.


E‐texts may not have the same content as other forms of the same title. Publishers appear to be increasing the incentives they present to consumers to purchase electronic, rather than print, formats of materials they publish. In some cases, e‐texts may be more up‐to‐date than alternative versions, or include resources and materials (video, interactive graphics, etc.) that are not included with other formats. E‐texts will increasingly be available in “partial” formats such as selected chapters, sections or supplementary content, rather than the whole book or bundle. Content variability should be taken into account when selecting textbooks and other materials that students may acquire in a variety of formats.

Devices and software limitations

E‐texts may be available in formats that may be read on any personal computer, or in formats that may be read on only one type of e‐reader (e.g., Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader). E‐texts may be sold in versions that may only be read using the publisher’s proprietary software. E‐readers, to date, do a poor job of presenting graphics and of meeting accessibility needs. E‐texts that may be read on a variety of devices using software commonly in use by students should be preferred over those that resent these sorts of limitations.


MSU’s policy regarding Web Accessibility provides valuable guidelines that should be applied to e‐texts as well. Accessibility criteria should be taken into account when selecting e‐texts. Content should be readable by screen readers such as JAWS or Window Eyes, and available to devices that can support commonly used accessibility tools.

Graphical content should be properly tagged and described for screen readers to interpret. When inaccessible content must be subjected to more sophisticated transformation efforts to make it accessible, this may cause significant delay for a student needing this accommodation. On June 20, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education sent a joint letter to university and college presidents urging them to take steps to ensure that their institutions refrain from requiring the use of any electronic book reader, or other similar technology, in a teaching or classroom environment as long as the device remains inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision. The letter reminded us that requiring use of a technology in a classroom environment when the technology is inaccessible to an entire population of individuals with disabilities – individuals with visual disabilities in this instance – is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.


Many e‐text licenses are good only for a limited time, and the e‐text files themselves or associated license keys will be disabled or purged at the point of license expiration, leaving the student with no ongoing access to the materials. This may be a particular problem for course materials needed for multiple semesters.


E‐text versions of materials often are priced to make them more attractive (i.e., appear less expensive) than print versions of the same materials. Appearances can be misleading, however. The common student practice of purchasing either a new or used textbook and then selling it on the used‐book market often presents the lowest cost alternative. This also leaves the student with the option of continuing to own and use the book, while many e‐text versions are sold only as a temporary license to use the material.


Given the current degrees of variability presented by offerings in this market, it is most appropriate to select course materials that preserve choices for students regarding how they will procure the materials. Faculty should alert students at the earliest opportunity about any options they may have for procuring course materials and the considerations noted in this document.

Document moved from PDF to in-line web page text, date styling adjusted, and some web formatting added in October 2014.

July 19, 2010

Document updated summer 2010 to include accessibility reminder from the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education.

Document developed over summer and early fall of 2009 with review and editorial input from: Instructional Computing and Technology CAFE, faculty and staff attendees of the Instructional Technology Brown Bag series, Office of the Provost.