Can eTexts Work for Your University?

By David LaMartina

It's strange that in a time when most content is consumed digitally, etextbooks still haven't caught on at major universities. Amazon sells even more digital books than print editions, yet ebooks accounted for only 2.5% of the higher ed market in 2011. Moreover, students themselves — most of whom are constantly plugged in — don't seem to like them.

Regardless, etext sales are rapidly rising. As tuition and textbook prices grow, even hesitant students are flocking to lower-cost online options. The growing popularity of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices doesn't hurt, either. For most schools, the real roadblock to adoption is the lack of proven procedures and supportive infrastructure.

To address this problem, the Florida Distance Learning Consortium hosted a symposium on digital textbooks last February. Professors and college admins related their experiences with etexts, and publishers discussed several business models for enrollment, payment, and long-term purchasing plans. The following are a few of their most important findings:

Reducing Costs, Adding Value

A recent Internet2 report showed that students consider price above all else when purchasing ebooks. How can schools cut costs while maintaining quality? Steve Acker, research director for the eText Ohio project, said that all parties should put some "skin in the game." He recommends a system wherein schools pay publishers at the end of the term, rather than at the end of the enrollment period. Their per-student compensation rates would be based on passes and failures, and books that didn't perform would be deeply discounted. Acker also proposed that universities contract for increasingly large discounts on etexts as they age, and as new editions are released.

To the chagrin of some students, it seems that one of the best ways to lower individual ebook costs is to require everyone to buy them. Ronda Epper, Assistant Provost for the Colorado Community College System (CCC), noted that her students pay a $52 materials fee when they sign up for classes that require digital texts. This fee is constant, no matter the publisher or number of books required. CCC students are also able to purchase low-cost, loose leaf-bound paper editions, and print whatever sections they need from their laptops or tablets.

One of the biggest complaints among Epper's students — and among ebook purchasers in general — is that they don't retain access to their texts. They're cheaper, sure, but so are used books and printed rentals. The combination of a required materials fee and limited access infuriated some students, especially those who spent additional money on printing. Currently, it seems that the most agreeable policy is not somewhere in the middle: professors can either require ebook purchases and allow for indefinite access, or make them optional and temporary. Of course, optional purchases and lifetime access would be ideal, but that might require far higher prices.

Software for Ease and Accessibility

A feature-filled, easy-to-learn software platform also seems critical to any etext initiative. Nick Osborne, the eText Liaison at Indiana University (IU), relayed his experiences with a popular content platform called Courseload. IU professors loved its annotation and highlighting features, as well as its allowance for custom content. The teachers could make instant edits that all of their students would be able to see — a far more efficient process than in-class corrections.

Of course, these kinds of features are useless without easy access to the texts. Platforms like Courseload and MyCompLab can be integrated into existing content management systems, ensuring that everyone will have their books at the beginning of a term. However, that kind of integration may also require mandated purchases or materials fees. In a system where the students choose to buy the online or print editions — or to not buy the books at all — it could be much more difficult for teachers to couple their instruction with the textbook material.

Whatever software a school chooses, it's essential that students receive adequate technical support. In the aforementioned Internet2 study, one of the most common complaints was that Courseload's features were difficult to use. Ronda Epper also found that CCC students needed support above and beyond the MyCompLab manuals provided by Pearson.

Holding Students Accountable

Etexts may be highly portable and easy to use, but for now, students still need a little prodding before they'll actually read them. In the Internet2 study, average participants only completed 48%of their assigned readings. The Florida Symposium speakers also noted that the digital medium itself had little impact on their students' interest in educational material.

Fortunately, Courseload and other content platforms allow professors to see how often and for how long their students are reading, annotating, and sharing material with peers. Diane Harley, Senior Researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, found that people who consistently marked up their materials almost always outperformed those who did not.

Daytona State English professor Ben Graydon went a step further, requiring his students to annotate, share, and prepare answers to custom in-text questions. He said that these requirements made them more focused and retentive readers, and that he was ultimately able to lead better in-class discussions. In summary of his presentation, he said, "It's your etext; own it." Professors should take every opportunity to add custom content and hold their students accountable through note-taking, discussions, and graded homework. For an etext to outperform a printed book, its content needs to be the focus of the class — not simply an addendum to the lectures.

Constant Improvement

Ultimately, every school will need to experiment and tailor its etext program to its students' needs. University of Florida math professor Miklos Bona helped to create an online calculus book, and he noted that such large projects require two or three semesters of refinement. No program can be perfect from the get-go, and there will always be issues with course content, usability, and accessibility. As the Colorado Community College experiment shows, some students may also need to warm up to the idea of paying required materials fees in lieu of buying printed books.

Of course, many of the cost-related concerns could dissolve if open access textbooks become more popular. Tom Caswell, an associate at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, presented the Open Course Library, which began providing low-cost ebooks in October 2011. This September, California also passed legislation to create free, open-source textbooks for 50 of the state's most common lower-level courses. Caswell says that more states can break the "iron triangle" of access, quality, and cost if they do three things: consider students first, share resources, and fund more affordable and scalable models of higher education.

David LaMartina is a Kansas City-based freelance writer specializing in education and health. He can be reached at




CC photos via Flickr: thumbnail by Velaia (ParisPeking), middle image by albertizeme

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