Online textbooks: Hope or hype?

Online textbooks have been touted in recent months as a way to bring relief to college students beleaguered by soaring textbook prices. Now, a study from the Student Public Interest Research Groups raises questions about whether online texts really are better than their printed counterparts–and publishers of online textbooks are firing back in turn.

According to the study, titled "Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks are Off Track and How to Set Them Straight," eTextbooks sound great in theory, but they are still overpriced–and though open electronic textbooks have the cost right, currently there aren’t enough options to make them worth a student’s time.

The study surveyed more than 500 students from Oregon and Illinois, asking them to rate their criteria for what defined a good digital textbook solution. Students said affordability, printing options, and accessibility were the top three characteristics of a worthy solution.

To be more affordable than traditional books, digital textbooks must cost less than the net cost of buying a printed textbook–the purchase price minus the amount a student can expect to receive for selling it back to the bookstore.

The study found the offerings from CourseSmart–a major publisher of eTextbooks–were too expensive and hard to access.

According to the study, CourseSmart digital texts on average cost the same as a new hard copy of the same title bought and sold back to the bookstore–and they cost 39 percent more than a used hard copy of the same title bought and sold back online.

The study also found that CourseSmart’s printing options were limited to 10 pages per session for each of the eTextbooks available–and buying and printing just half an electronic text reportedly cost three times as much as buying a used hard copy and selling it back to the bookstore.

Finally, the study noted that CourseSmart’s eTextbooks expired after 180 days, so students did not have the ability to access their books in the future.

CourseSmart Executive Vice President Frank Lyman said digital textbooks have more strengths than the study reported.

For example, he said, even though prices for CourseSmart texts vary widely, most books have a 50-percent discount from the list price–and the average price for a CourseSmart book is $50.

What’s more, CourseSmart is offering a discount to Ohio college students through a deal negotiated with OhioLink, Ohio’s library and information network. On top of CourseSmart’s lower prices, Ohio students will get an additional 10-percent discount.

"We are talking with other states and institutions and also have programs in place with a number of companies that help college bookstores offer CourseSmart eTextbooks in the bookstore itself," he said. "Nearly 100 stores are distributing CourseSmart eTextbooks this fall through our partnership with Nebraska Book Company and other partners. We expect that number to grow dramatically."

Currently, CourseSmart offers more than 4,000 "front-list" titles, and this figure is expected to grow to more than 5,000 by December, Lyman said.

There is a limit on printing–but Lyman said this is less to put restrictions on students and more to promote an eco-friendly lifestyle. "Any student who prefers to have an entire book in printed form can and should purchase a print text," he said.

Though students can only print 10 pages per session–meaning every time they log on–students can quickly log on, then off, then on again to print up to 150 percent of the original textbook, or a copy and a half. "This is an effort to keep … students honest and provide the printing flexibility students want, while not making it that easy to print the entire text and give it away to other students," explained Lyman.

Lyman also noted that not every student sells his or her textbooks back–and not every book is resold for 50 percent of its original value.

According to CourseSmart, which reportedly counts more than 2,000 schools and 300,000 faculty members as beta users, 80 percent of its student customers say they will buy some or all of their future titles from CourseSmart. Since August, students at more than 1,300 colleges and universities have purchased eTextbooks from CourseSmart, the company says.

Open textbooks

Because of the limits placed on printing electronic versions of traditional textbooks, and because the cost savings from buying electronic versions are unclear, the Student PIRG study says open eTextbooks are a much better alternative for students.

"Open textbooks are the right way to take advantage of the benefits of digital textbooks," says the study, "so faculty and institutions should do everything they can to bring more open textbooks onto the market. For faculty, this means giving preference to open textbooks whenever pedagogically appropriate. For institutions, this means providing incentives to faculty authors and pooling resources to develop a viable infrastructure to support open textbooks."

Open textbooks are distributed digitally, free of charge, under an open license. A key feature is that they permit users to make copies and translate the text into different formats. The key down side, according to the study, is that there are fewer open textbooks available for students to use.

Flat World Knowledge, an open textbook provider recognized by the Student PIRGs as a leader of the open textbook movement, aims to change that. Flat World says its service requires no registration or login, and there are no limitations on printing.

According to Flat World, the only drawback is in the formatting: Web-based books might not hold their format when printed. As a result, the company makes its money in part from shipping printed versions of open textbooks.

"If people want to have fully formatted, look-just-like-my-other-textbooks print books, they can either purchase a complete book for $29.95 from us, which we print on-demand and ship directly, or purchase printable PDF files for $1.99 per chapter or $19.95 for the whole book," said Eric Frank, Flat World’s co-founder.

Flat World’s emergence has sparked a battle for market share in the digital textbook realm between publishers of electronic versions of traditional texts, such as CourseSmart, and publishers of open eTextbooks.

Lyman believes CourseSmart eTextbooks offer an advantage over open textbooks because of their proven high quality and breadth of available content.

"If you consider the author and publisher investment that goes into making a textbook, it is hard to believe that an open-source, or free, textbook model will match the quality of that experience," he said.

But Frank disagrees.

At Flat World, he said, the company builds lists of people it thinks would be best suited to write a textbook on a particular topic, based on their scholarly reputation and/or previous textbook writing success.

"We reach out to those people, brainstorm ideas, and determine if there is a good fit. If so, they submit a full proposal and sample material, which we vet via peer reviewers. If we are satisfied that we will be able to develop a top textbook together, we proceed to a contract, and they begin writing," he said.

Faculty members also can submit proposals to Flat World. Frank said textbook authors are getting hurt by many of the trends affecting the textbook publishing business.

"They only earn royalties on sales of new books from the publisher," he explained. "There has been a dramatic rise in substitutes and alternatives to the new book, [owing] to the disruptive impact of the internet–such as used books, global grey-market books, pirated copies, peer-to-peer traded copies, et cetera–and authors receive no payments on those."

But with the open textbook model, authors are paid royalties–a 20-percent royalty rate, versus a lower industry average of 15 to 16 percent–on any and all revenues generated around their product, such as print-on-demand books, audio books, PDF books, and even study aids, Frank said.

Lyman noted that open textbooks don’t have enough titles to affect a wide range of students. He said it’s hard for faculty members to help their students by using open textbooks at this time.

As of press time, Flat World Knowledge had 17 titles–all under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license–under contract and in development. The first eight of these titles were scheduled to publish commercially between January 1 and March 1.

Flat World is currently signing new books at a rate of about 1.5 new books per month, or 18 to 20 per year, Frank said.

Currently, Flat World is engaged in a private beta test at more than 20 institutions, including the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, California State University Dominguez Hills, Lehigh University, the University of Florida, and Spokane Falls Community College.

While Frank acknowledges that students use the books their professors select, he believes there are many advantages to using open textbooks.

For professors, each textbook is openly licensed for them to modify. Professors can move chapters and sections around, delete them, add their own materials to the book, and add annotations for their students. Coming next summer, they will be able to edit the books down to the sentence level, he said.

Also, open textbooks are available online indefinitely, meaning professors can use an edition of a textbook for as long as they want.

For students, open textbooks are "dramatically" more affordable, Frank said, and students can leave comments at the bottom of every page to engage in discussions with other students. Coming soon, he said, users of Flat World textbooks will be able to chat online with other readers, share book highlights, and more.


Student PIRG study


Flat World Knowledge

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Eco-Friendly Computing resource center. With energy costs soaring to record levels, taking steps to reduce the amount of energy you use isn’t just good for the environment–it’s also essential for your schools’ fiscal health. Fortunately, manufacturers of technology are responding to these needs by developing more eco-friendly products that can reduce power consumption and save schools money over the life of these systems. Go to: Eco-Friendly Computing

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