After piloting a digital textbook rental program in fall 2010, the California State University system learned a few lessons about how the e-books worked for students.
The pilot started as part of a broader initiative to make textbooks more affordable and give students more options.
In 30 course sections, 3,870 students participated at five campuses, including Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, San Bernardino and San Francisco. This spring, the pilot expanded to include Chico and Fresno.
Of the students involved in the fall pilot, about 17 percent, or 662 students, shared their digital textbook experiences through a survey at the end of the semester.
Survey respondents indicated that 98 percent had Internet access at home and 46 percent had purchased some kind of an e-book before.
Of the books required for the course sections, the paper textbooks averaged $173 while the digital rentals that students could view online or download cost $60. And that's significant because students say cost is a huge factor.
“For a number of these students," Hanley said, "that amount of money makes a big difference."
In fall 2011, all 23 campuses will be able to adopt the digital textbook rental option if they choose to do so. And the CSU leadership team is looking at providing both print and digital versions of the textbooks.
That way, students who want to pay less for their books and like the digital option can do so. And students who prefer print can purchase hardcopies of their books either used or new.
“You really want your students to choose the materials and the format that suits their learning styles best," Hanley said.
As a consequence of providing that choice, students probably won't get as good of a deal — this year they rented digital textbooks at 35 percent of the cost of a new physical textbook — because the CSU system wouldn't make the same volume commitment for purchasing.
The CSU system faced a number of challenges throughout its fall pilot, including significantly revising business practices that have been in place for a century. The publishers, book distributors and bookstores have a pretty well-oiled machine to ship new books, take inventory and find used books. But with the digital rental, publishers and digital distributors have to create a new version of that material.
During this transition time from print to digital, you need more lead time. Once they get the digital version, they have to create new ISBNs and implement a methodology for students to access the titles.
"It was unexpected how challenging that can be," Hanley said.
The system is currently streamlining that process. But to overcome that challenge in the fall, the digital book distributor CourseSmart worked fast and hard. The publishers responded as quickly as they could. And the independent college bookstores worked together with Follett bookstores to provide students with their digital textbooks.
Hanley shared some advice that he's learned from planning the e-textbook pilot and tackling these challenges.
“Like any important and large initiative, leadership, project management and communication as you design and implement your initiative is essential,” he said.
"And just because you’ve been distributing content for 100 years at your institution doesn’t mean that it’s a low-level effort. It really is something where you have to begin to re-engineer some of your business practices in a transformative way that produces cost savings for your institutions.”