Textbooks are a fundamental part of education, but they present problems on multiple levels: they are heavy, cumbersome, wasteful, and static. While the information contained therein may be invaluable, any student who has had to lug four or five textbooks home on his back can tell you that the recent trend toward e-texts can't progress fast enough.
Universities around the U.S. have been requiring students to purchase e-texts instead of printed texts as part of a study to see if their effectiveness matched that of the paper books. Results were mixed. Many students reported that the e-texts were difficult to navigate, but that's to be expected whenever new technology is adopted. Over time, we adapt and develop new habits - once you're past the learning curve, e-texts have much more to offer.
Some eText are simply electronic versions of the regular paper book, but more and more publishers are offering interactive features that allow students to share notes and annotate, as well as allowing teachers to annotate text to provide clarification or relate a passage back to what was discussed in class. This already beats a static printed text, which never changes. Of course, reaping the full benefit of these features requires that both the teachers and the students are fully trained in the use of the technology - but this will be less and less of an issue as e-texts become more common.
Textbooks are expensive. Very expensive. To add insult to injury, many classes don't even use the entire book - it's not uncommon for students to be required to purchase a 30-chapter book only to use the first 10 chapters in the actual class. Some publishers already allow students to buy electronic versions of the printed text a chapter at a time - often, the total cost turns out to be much less than the purchase price of the full printed book (including the unused chapters).
Of course, eTexts cost less to publish than printed books, but it's unlikely that they'll pass that savings onto the customer the way we've seen e-book publishers do. After all, textbook publishers pretty much know how many books they'll sell in a given year (related to the number of students taking the course at however many schools use that book), so they aren't motivated to drive sales by slashing prices the way the latest bestsellers are sold. Instead, they'll take advantage of the extra profit and simply offer additional features with the e-text to justify the price. Whether those extra features are worthwhile or not depends upon the publisher, the subject matter and the student.
Every college student in the world would kiss you square on the mouth if you told them they could store all their textbooks on an iPad. Problem is, not everyone has an iPad. Or a Kindle, or a Nook. So are they left out? No - most school libraries already rent out technology from laptops to graphing calculators. It wouldn't be a big issue to add e-readers to the mix. Or, the school could issue a new e-reader to each student and tack the extra cost onto tuition.
Additionally, some publishers allow students to pay to access a web-based version of the book instead of actually downloading it - this could be a last-resort alternative for the student with only a desktop computer.
We live in an age where middle school children are visiting the chiropractor to fix backs bent and strained under the weight of overloaded backpacks. Putting all those books on an e-reader would lighten the load. Some of the students in the previously-referenced study complained that the constantly-refreshing screen caused eye strain, but this could be solved by using an "electronic ink" type e-reader like the Kindle. Instead of slumping over a clunky textbook and causing back and neck strain, an e-reader can be propped vertically for a more ergonomic workspace without the annoyance of pages flopping all over the place.
Overall, making the switch to eTextbooks would be a good thing for students once the initial learning curve is over, but let's face it - most of them are already doing their recreational reading on an electronic device anyway.