If you’re looking for a textbook example of technology obstruction by the media industry, look no further than e-textbooks.

“About 90 percent of the time, the cheapest option is still to buy a used book and then resell that book,” says Jonathan Robinson, founder of FreeTextbooks.com, an online retailer of discount books. “That is really an obstacle for widespread adoption [of e-textbooks], because smarter consumers realize that and are not going to leap into the digital movement until the pricing evens out.”

That’s sad news for students headed back to college this fall. IPads, Kindles and even HP’s doomed TouchPad tablet are literally flying off the shelves, and many students wouldn’t be caught dead on campus without one.

Meanwhile, e-textbook sales at the nation’s universities are stuck in single digits, with little hope of escape before 2013. According to Simba Information , in the next two years e-textbook revenue will reach just $585.4 million and account for just over 11 percent of all higher education and career-oriented textbook sales — a notable but not yet predominant force in the marketplace.

What gives?

In the modern college classroom, tech-savvy professors email .pdfs and links to Google Books instead of handing out course packets, return papers as Word documents, and communicate with their students through online social networks.

Over a quarter of college students (27 percent) think their laptop is the most essential item in their bag, compared to just 10 percent who pick textbooks, according to a recent survey from Wakefield Research and e-textbook vendor CourseSmart. Almost three-quarters of students (73 percent) say they wouldn’t be able to study without some type of digital technology, while nearly two of five (38 percent) say they’re unable to go more than 10 minutes without checking one of their digital devices.

Simply put, this generation of scholars is helpless without technology.

Many textbook publishers, meanwhile, are acting like 1990s music executives, slapping on high price tags and copyright handcuffs that conspire to make their products less valuable than their dead tree counterparts.

While some digital book vendors tout the momentous savings of e-textbooks — “an average of 60 percent off the price of a new print textbook,” boasts CourseSmart CMO Jill Ambrose — the reality is far murkier. Nearly all e-books purchased through official means are laden with copy and share restrictions, so students aren’t able to lend the material to their peers. Most of these e-textbooks “purchases” are actually rentals that expire after six months, no doubt the publishers’ attempt to squash the used textbook market.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest customers of e-textbooks are the ones who simply refuse to pay .

“I pirate every single textbook that I can — which is about half of them,” says a 23-year-old engineering student at the City College of New York, who requested not to be named. “I either torrent them or I go on an online forum set up by a few other students from my school where they put up the textbooks on their own. At least in my major, most of the students are pirating.”

Platform fragmentation remains yet another impediment to e-textbook adoption. As the four major digital textbook publishers — Cengage, Pearson, Wiley, and McGraw-Hill — push for more dynamic experiences stuffed with audiovisual content, the question of platform support becomes increasingly relevant. Will an e-textbook work on your Kindle as well as your laptop? Will it be accessible from the HP Touchpad you picked up on the cheap? Do you have to have an open Internet connection to access the material? Depending on the e-textbook vendor, these answers vary, and they’re not always clear up-front.

Those who want a test run can usually download a free trial version of an e-textbook, which typically provides the first chapter of a text.

Some impetus for change is coming from the top down. In a rare all-or-nothing effort, Daytona State College is in the midst of a transition to 100 percent digital course material in a bid to drive down textbook prices. And influential institutions like Stanford University and the University of Michigan now run e-book rental programs.

The most significant source of change, however, is coming from the bottom-up, in the form of today’s increasingly wired student body.

Some educators, like New York University journalism professor Mitch Stephens, think that grassroots demand could spur progress in the field of teaching, much as the business world was up-ended by mobile consumers who brought their beloved smartphones into the office, knocking RIM off its perch and forcing historically closed IT departments to open up.

Ruminating over potential changes he may make in his classroom, Stephens envisions a student twitter feed running alongside — and perhaps informing — his lectures.

“I always say the corollary of a shorter attention span is a faster mind,” says Stephens. “I think that that this transformation to digital culture will have costs … but what may be gained — which could be new ways not only of teaching but of thinking — likely will be worth it.”

Source: WIRED