This month, Indiana University made agreements with a software company and five publishers that influence the economic terms for the future of e-textbooks.
Instead of having a book disappear after 120 to 180 days, students access their eTexts as long as they attend the university. Instead of paying 60 to 85 percent of the retail price of a physical textbook, they pay 35 percent or less through a technology fee.
Instead of having print restrictions, they print as many pages as they like on their own dime or request a print-on-demand textbook for a modest fee. And instead of using four or five different software platforms to read and annotate their eTexts, they use one.
As course material shifts from print to digital, Indiana University advocates on behalf of students for lower prices, more choices and common software platforms.
Over the past two years, the physical textbook market has been "failing for everyone," said Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology, CIO, and professor of information systems at the university. Students pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks, authors don't get compensated enough for their work, and publishers are in the middle.
With digital texts, we have the opportunity to solve these problems, he said. But the current economic terms of e-textbooks don't save students much money and come with too many restrictions. And they may need four or five different pieces of software to read and annotate various texts.
This situation prompted Indiana University to negotiate on behalf of its 110,000 students for a better deal. Seven months after issuing a request for proposal, the university announced agreements with the Indianapolis-based software company Courseload Inc. and publishers McGraw-Hill, John Wiley & Sons Inc.; Bedford Freeman & Worth Publishing Group; W.W. Norton; and Flat World Knowledge.
"I think we're in a two to five-year transition period now of figuring out how to best leverage content and academic tools on campus, and what's changing the fastest is how we deliver that," said Tom Malek, the vice president of Learning Solutions for McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Because the music industry has already transitioned to digital, it paves the way for course materials in a lot of ways, said Mickey Levitan, co-founder and CEO of Courseload. The transition will happen quickly, and "it's just a matter of sorting out the right approaches and the right models."
The right model for Indiana University includes licensing a common reading and annotation software platform. Because the Courseload software hooks into the university's Sakai learning management system (called Oncourse), students see their syllabus, assignments and digital content in one place.
Over the past two years, the university piloted the software on two of its eight campuses: Indianapolis and Bloomington. Based on feedback from students and faculty, Courseload rewrote the platform in HTML5 this summer.
"It's been a very rich collaboration, and we're grateful to the students and faculty who've provided the guidance and the input," Levitan said.
Now the platform has an offline mode, a print on demand option and better collaboration tools. The second version made huge improvements in the user interface and ability to tag, search and print notes, said associate professor Rob Potter, who shared feedback from his telecommunications classes with the company and received immediate responses from the software designers.
The software is stunning, Wheeler said. And students can use the platform on practically any device and browser.
"It gets you out of the silly game of having to write a specific piece of software for an iPad and a specific piece of software for an Android and a specific piece of software for something else. That's a losing game" because it's expensive to develop, support and maintain separate programs for each device.
During the pilot, the university studied 22 courses filled with about 1,700 students. And the most surprising result was that students didn't print much, Wheeler said.
Sixty-eight percent didn't print any pages, according to system logs. And less than 19 percent printed more than 50 pages, even though they had no restrictions.
While the majority of Potter's students liked the eTexts, a handful of people said they would rather read on a printed page. And some of them said on their course evaluations that they didn't like reading on a screen because it hurt their eyes.
That's why the university made sure students could print pages or request a print copy. For example, McGraw-Hill will deliver a three-hole punched, black and white book for a flat rate within three days.
In a survey of 738 students, 87 percent read eTexts on a computing device, according to the research report. Most of them used a laptop or switched between a laptop and desktop. But only one percent used a mobile device or e-reader.
An average of about 60 percent said they preferred e-textbooks to physical ones. However, the percentages ranged from 84 percent in some classes to 36 percent in classes where instructors didn't refer to the textbook.
When the university asked students why they liked e-textbooks better, 69 percent cited instructor annotations, followed closely by sustainability, cost, weight of books and student annotations.
While students can highlight, add margin notes and share notes with study buddies, they valued the collaboration tools the most when faculty members shared their annotations, Wheeler said.
For example, their professors could highlight a paragraph and link to a news story that illustrates the points they talked about in class, Wheeler said. And they can also crosslink sections from different chapters.
"This is enabling some pretty clever new ways of faculty and students communicating with each other to improve people's thinking and understanding," Wheeler said.
The annotation capabilities of the software give Potter a way to engage students with the textbook. His students take media arts and sciences classes in different campus departments. So they use the annotation tools to compare how the textbook for his course treats a subject in relation to another text in, say, a marketing class. Potter also links to media examples on YouTube and websites he comes across.
Students in Potter's spring "Media Sales" class liked purchasing eTexts at about 33 percent of the shelf price of a new physical textbook.
"The cost break was just incredible," said Potter, who also directs the Institute for Communication Research. "That was the real benefit to them, the immediate tangible benefit to them that made me want to give it a try."
Last year, MBA students paid $655 for their course pack, which included one textbook. But this year, they paid $360 less for more content. A fee of $295 gave them access to two custom textbooks, an online simulation game, and faculty-authored materials and cases.
If they wanted a hard copy of everything, they still saved $180 over last year.
"The economics of this are very compelling," Wheeler said. "And McGraw-Hill wouldn't have joined in with us if it wasn't the future."
From McGraw-Hill's perspective, this partnership represents a way to get its learning material in students' hands on the first day of class, Malek said. Often students don't have their textbooks for the first few weeks of the semester. Or they don't purchase them at all unless someone proves to them that they need the textbooks. And that slows faculty down.
On top of that, the packaging and bundling of resources with textbooks is often confusing, and students and faculty don't see the value for it. This agreement represents a shift toward a digitally unbundled approach where students and faculty pick the resources they need and whether they want them in print or digital form.
And it also represents today's subscription model, Malek said. Faculty still choose their materials the same way, and the university plugs the publishing company in to help them out with services, including assessment, lecture capture and e-book tools. As more classes move to a hybrid model, these three tools become important.
This agreement is the first of its kind for McGraw-Hill. The publishing company partnered with Indiana University because it had the infrastructure, the human resources and the technical components in place.
"It's about speed and what we can learn in the very short term about the usefulness of these tools and then how we can scale," Malek said.
The eText fee model turns out to be a win-win for everyone, Wheeler said. Students save money, faculty have more options and authors get paid when content is used. And it discourages illegal use of material and avoids the whole bad decade that the music industry experienced with piracy and other issues.
This spring, all faculty will be able to choose whether they want to use eTexts in their courses. And the university has its door wide open for other creators of content who want to make deals that give faculty choices and save students money.
"The more that universities play a role in helping to shape the digital course materials' future, the happier we're all going to be with where it ends up over this decade."