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Textbooks continue to account for a large chunk of college expenses — an average of $1,168 per student annually at four-year public colleges, according to CollegeBoard. Some U.S. universities are searching for ways to keep more money in students’ wallets by making affordable digital textbooks readily available.
One of the leaders of this movement is Indiana University, which for the past 2 ½ years has piloted e-textbooks and a common software platform to read and annotate the texts under the IT leadership of Brad Wheeler. After the university announced in September that all faculty members could choose a digital textbook option, 90 to 100 of them selected “eTexts” for an estimated 130 course sections.
When students sign up for classes, the registration system tells them which sections have a mandatory eText fee. That fee is 35 percent or less than the retail price of a physical textbook.
After paying, students can access the texts they purchase as long as they attend the university, print as many pages as they want or order a print-on-demand textbook for a modest fee. Of the university's 95,420 students enrolled in spring courses at Indiana, 5.5 percent signed up for eText courses.
"We're trying to influence the shift to digital in terms that are more advantageous to students," Wheeler said.
This semester, five universities are following Indiana University's eText model in a new pilot. They are the University of California, Berkeley; Cornell University, University of Minnesota, University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin - Madison.
As the cost of higher education continues to go up, and students have trouble paying for new textbooks, universities are looking for ways to reduce the cost of staying in school.
"This is only one of many ways we're trying to figure out how to make the experience as good as possible for students so they can graduate in a timely manner with less debt," said Billie Wahlstrom, vice provost for distributed education and instructional technology at the University of Minnesota.
While universities have tested digital textbooks for some time, university administrators haven’t been able to derive good data from the different pilots, said Wahlstrom. One impediment, Wahlstrom said, is that the publishers, distribution systems and bookstore owners are different in each pilot.
And there are several different delivery platforms for e-textbooks on the market.
"This isn't the only game in town, but it's one that looks pretty attractive because it's not dependent on a particular publisher and because it adheres to open standards for devices for delivery, and both of those are really appealing to us," said Mike McPherson, associate vice president and deputy CIO at the University of Virginia.
With five universities in the eText pilot, the participants will have a common set of data, a larger research base to evaluate the project and staff members at other universities to collaborate with. The University of Minnesota disability services group has already been in touch with the other universities’ disability departments.
"By working together and developing some common strategy, we'll have some leverage on issues like accessibility," Wahlstrom said.
Through this pilot, the University of Virginia wanted to see how electronic textbooks would integrate with its teaching infrastructure, McPherson said. That question has already been answered. Its open-source Sakai learning management system works well with the Courseload eText delivery platform and wasn't difficult or expensive to integrate, he said.
This semester, seven courses of about 400 students total are piloting the eTexts at the University of Virginia. By doing this pilot, the university is putting e-textbooks into the hands of a motivated group of faculty members and getting feedback from them.
Virginia’s campus bookstore previously has offered eTexts for some book titles, but this is the first time entire classes have them — which should enable faculty members to experiment with some different teaching techniques, McPherson said.
Over the years, the University of Minnesota bookstore has also made eTexts available. The bookstore’s owner played a key role in getting the pilot going at the university, along with collaboration from various campus departments. Nine faculty members and about 700 students are enrolled in Minnesota's pilot.
All five participating universities are members of Internet2, an advanced networking consortium that most colleges and universities belong to. Internet2 is negotiating on behalf of its members for services, such as eTexts. Five universities decided that if they could pool their purchasing power, they could use the economy of scale to make e-textbooks a feasible alternative.
"This is a broad community of chief information officers, leaders, at most of the major universities in the country who see this as a very strategically important opportunity for information technology to not only be delivered less expensively, but to enable the institutions to deliver other services less expensively," said Dave Lambert, CEO of Internet2.
Within 45 days, they had an agreement in principle, and within 70 days of the eText idea, the universities went live. That’s lightning fast speed for a higher education system that normally moves slowly. McGraw-Hill provided digital textbooks, and Courseload provided software.
The University of Virginia had already hit the economy of scale that its 16,000 student campus could reach by itself, said McPherson. In order to realize more cost savings, the university needed to move to significantly larger scales.
"We're really interested in aggregation above the level of individual universities so we can start to get to some of those next ‘breaking points’ in the economy of scale curve," McPherson said.
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