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Colleges drive digital textbooks

Options for structuring e-book initiatives
University Business, November 2017
  • STEPS TO STUDENT ACCESS—OpenStax, the Rice University-based nonprofit that provides openly licensed textbooks to nearly 1.5 million students per year, keeps its e-books free through support from several philanthropic foundations.
  • DIGITAL AND AFFORDABLE—At the University of Wisconsin, Stout, the Instructional Resources Service department has worked to manage costs and increase learning outcomes by delivering content digitally whenever possible.
  • DIGITAL LABEL—The Cornell Store at Cornell University lists five separate prices on an electronic label for any book that has a digital version.

More than half of students at Indiana University’s seven campuses started the fall semester with at least one e-textbook loaded directly into their learning management system account—at about a quarter of the cost of a new print edition.

And at the University of California, Davis, students in hundreds of courses use e-textbooks and take interactive, online quizzes incorporated in their digital course materials.

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. and Canadian college students purchased an e-textbook in the fall of 2016, according to the National Association of College Stores. With print textbook costs having risen faster than the rate of inflation, it’s not surprising colleges are moving toward digital course materials.


Sidebar: Publishers and technology companies on successful e-textbook programs


Last spring, about 20 percent of students surveyed by the association opted out of buying at least one required course text, citing cost as the reason. College administrators say e-textbooks can close this gap—both on the affordability front and for quicker access to content on the first day of class.

Developing a successful model for creating an e-textbook program is key to taking digital course materials to the next step of widespread use.

The financial models institutions use for e-textbook programs vary depending on how they purchase e-books from publishers, how they sell the content to students and whether the content includes software with embedded interactive quizzes and study guides.

Here are three ways to design an e-textbook initiative:

1. Negotiate for software licensing


Sidebar: E-textbook programs: Who’s in charge?


Publishers’ inability to profit from sales of used or rental books is one factor known to have driven up textbook costs.

But when colleges negotiate for deeply discounted prices on e-textbooks and say they will bill students as part of their total tuition and fees, they essentially guarantee all students in a particular class will buy the course materials.

Because e-textbooks tend to be used in large introductory courses, administrators are in an even better position to seek lower prices on the licenses because of sales volume.

Indiana University, an early adopter of e-textbooks, launched its program in 2009 and had 533 students using digital textbooks by 2011; this fall, 56,000 students are enrolled in courses that incorporate digital content. Publisher negotiations played a large role in that growth.

“We said to the publisher, ‘If you will drop your price dramatically, we’ll use bursar billing. You’ll get paid for every use of your course materials and our students will benefit from the substantial cost savings,’ ” says Bradley Wheeler, vice president for information technology.

On some campuses, students have two weeks to opt out of an e-textbook and switch to the print edition. This model has been used at Cornell University in New York, which this fall negotiated savings of $230,000 for students in 14 courses that are part of its pilot e-textbook program.

(That savings is compared to the price for the print equivalent.)

“Because all students get the e-book and have a trial, the publishers give a discounted rate,” says Chris Cave, assistant director of retail operations at The Cornell Store. The vast majority of students tend to stick with the digital format.

At The University of Arizona, for example, only 4 percent of students in the e-textbook program choose to opt out, says Cindy Hawk, assistant director of the book division for the University of Arizona BookStores.

The digital content, delivered directly through each student’s LMS account, tends to be selected over rental and used books, Hawk says.

“You’ve literally eliminated the competition for the publishers, so they are very motivated to make the price right because they’re going to sell more.”

2. Provide all-inclusive access

The University of Wisconsin-Stout took the model of billing students directly for course content a step further. In 2012, the university began charging students a per-credit fee for all print and digital textbooks used.

“Regardless of what book or content is assigned to a class, we purchase it and provide it as a university,” says Robert Butterfield, director of instructional resources. “Our students aren’t required to purchase anything out of pocket.”

This year students are paying an average of $400 for course materials for the entire year on their tuition bill. Before the discount, negotiated with publishers, the content would have cost about $1,500, Butterfield says.

One of the original objectives was to offer students additional content types. When the project started, five classes enrolling 189 students adopted e-textbooks. The following year, the university expanded the program, which has been growing at a rate of up to 25 percent per semester.

More than half of the course materials at the university are digital this year, Butterfield says.

Beyond cost savings, the project allows for fresher academic content.

“If there’s an edition change, it’s not nearly as difficult as when you’ve invested in a large inventory of printed materials,” Butterfield says. “We would never be able to operate the program and have this much flexibility with print.”

The plan is a rental program, so students have access to most of e-textbooks for only 180 days. Butterfield doesn’t see this as an issue. “There are a few titles here and there that students will develop with and grow with, but for the most part they are interested in getting rid of them as soon as possible,” he says.

At other schools, the length of access varies by the course and the professor’s preference. Access to e-textbooks at The University of Arizona, for example, ranges from 180 days to four years, already considered the life of the edition, says Hawk.

3. Choose free e-textbooks

The attempt to reduce the costs has prompted many institutions to adopt open educational resources (OER). As more free textbooks come online, they are becoming a popular option—especially in large, introductory courses.

“It’s growing because of being in the right place at the right time,” says Richard Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University who in 2012 founded OpenStax, which publishes free peer-reviewed e-textbooks.

OpenStax e-textbooks are being used in about 10,000 courses at 4,000 degree-granting institutions across the country. Baraniuk estimates the initiative has saved students $160 million over the past five years.

Another publisher, Open SUNY Textbooks, has produced 20 open-access e-textbooks since its launch. In June 2017, the State University of New York was one of 11 individual colleges or systems selected to partner with OpenStax in a program that provides expertise on how to encourage the use of free e-textbooks.

“Our emphasis has shifted away from creating new materials to the adoption of existing open materials,” says Alexis Clifton, SUNY’s executive director of open educational resources.

OER and e-textbooks are already reducing the cost of course materials, based on annual surveys conducted by the National Association of College Stores.

In the last academic year, college students spent an average of $579 on 10 required course textbooks, a 4 percent decrease from the $602 they spent in 2015-16, the survey found.

“It’s going down because there are different alternatives for how students acquire their course materials,” says Robert Walton, the association’s CEO. Whereas new, used and rental books were once the only options, students can now use e-textbooks and open access course materials.

The latest e-textbooks offer more functionality—allowing users to highlight text, annotate and create study guides—making them a preferred format for students and faculty.

“The world is getting more and more digital,” says Jason Lorgan, executive director of the University of California, Davis Stores, which began its e-textbook program three years ago.

“Obviously not every faculty member is going to teach this way all at once, but we think this has the potential to grow significantly for many, many years.” 


Sherrie Negrea, a Ithaca, New York-based writer, is a frequently contributor to UB.

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