The University of Puerto Rico’s medical school class of 2012 will be among the first in the world to receive an entirely digital education through computer-based textbooks, according to e-Book provider VitalSource. The landmark conversion to digital curriculum is another example of higher education’s embrace of the cost-effective alternative to pricey textbooks in a down economy.
Textbook prices have risen at twice the annual rate of inflation over the last 20 years, according to a study done by the Government Accountability Office. According to the College Board, the average college student spent between $805 and $1,229 on books and supplies alone during the 2007-08 school year. In the National Association of College Stores’ 2008 Student Watch Survey of Student Attitudes & Buying Habits, students estimated they spent $702 on required course materials annually.
Puerto Rico medical students will be issued a university laptop on their first day of class in August, pre-loaded with 30 textbooks that are automatically updated when the curriculum is tweaked, officials said.
"Essentially, it’s a professional library that you’re given on your first day of school," said William Chesser, general manager of North Carolina-based VitalSource.
The e-Books’ interactive features will let students search for content as they would in a search engine, meaning students will not have to endlessly flip through textbooks for homework assignments or study sessions. If students upgrade their computer during their time at Puerto Rico University, they can transfer their e-Book license and avoid any transfer confusion.
VitalSource officials said there is a common misconception that encouraging students to buy used textbooks will help relieve the high costs of college books. In fact, book publishers have raised their prices at a steady clip in recent years to recoup the money from used book sales, Chesser said. In contrast, e-Books can be less than half the price of their traditional counterparts, industry experts said.
"In the long run, used books can be counterproductive to pricing," Chesser said. "This is a good example of technology helping both parties. … It’s cheaper for the students, and it’s a more sustainable model for publishers."
VitalSource trains IT chiefs and faculty members and provides a 24-hour help desk. Most questions come in the first few months of implementation, Chesser said, and most queries are about registering and installing the e-Book platform.
Chesser said college faculty can incorporate the e-Book platform into their web-based syllabi. Professors simply drag and drop an e-Book link into online course material, and the link takes students directly to the page being discussed.
"The software is very intuitive, very straightforward," Chesser said. "We’re going to be watching very closely how this goes. [The University of Puerto Rico] will be sort of a beacon for other medical schools."
A completely digital medical school education, Chesser said, will prepare students for the technology-intensive professional life that awaits them.
"As much as anything else, you’re teaching students how to use the kind of tools they’re going to use for the rest of their careers," he said. "If you’re a doctor, you are going to have to use these tools."