CSU System Shares E-book Pilot Results

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.

by Tanya Roscorla / March 14, 2011 0
A bird's eye view of California State University, Long Beach. | Photo source: CSU Long Beach

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.

3 major findings

Survey respondents indicated that 98 percent had Internet access at home and 46 percent had purchased some kind of an e-book before.

  1. More students purchased digital licenses.
    In a control group of students whose professors required them to purchase physical textbooks, 46 percent bought the material.

    But in the pilot, 73 percent of students rented digital textbooks. And that's a good thing for learning because more students have access to the content they need, said Gerry Hanley, senior director of the CSU Academic Technology Services and executive director of MERLOT.
  2. The digital material was easy to use.
    When asked how easy it was to use an e-textbook, 53 percent of students said it was easy, 25 percent said they were neutral, and 22 percent didn't agree that they were easy to use.

    Students liked the cost, the keyword search and the lightweight option that digital textbooks provided.
  3. The e-books did not give most students a satisfactory user experience.
    Respectively, a third of the students were satisfied, neutral or dissatisfied with their experience. The e-textbooks still make students feel like they're reading a book on the Web, so their responses reflected this state of affairs, Hanley said.

    Upper division students preferred the e-textbooks more than the general education students did, probably because they've used more digital resources for their research.

    And the majority of students liked to read the text online rather than downloading it. The explanation for this preference is unclear. But Hanley surmised that students found it easier to type in a URL and password instead of going through the extra steps required to download it.

    As a result of the survey findings, the CSU system is working with digital textbook publishers and distributors to improve the student experience with e-textbooks.

    “That satisfaction has to be significantly improved," Hanley said. "You can’t have a third dissatisfied and a third neutral and only have a third like it.”

The cost factor

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."

CSU plans to offer students a choice

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. 

Advice for other university systems

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.”