One-third of students are comfortable with eBooks, according to a study.

One-third of students are comfortable with eBooks, according to a study.

Barnes & Noble has joined the growing list of companies and organizations giving college students electronic alternatives to their pricey textbooks with the book retailer’s free NOOKstudy software that could save students 40 percent at the bookstore.

The NOOKstudy software will be usable on PCs, Macs, the Apple iPad, and, of course, the Nook when the program is released in August. More than 500,000 free eBooks will be available through the software, according to the Barnes & Noble web site, including some texts that might be required for college students.

Barnes & Noble will partner with learning management giant Blackboard in its NOOKstudy launch, allowing students who use Blackboard’s online learning platform to buy and read texts available in the NOOKstudy library, which will be stocked with more than 1 million eBooks in all.

Students will be able to highlight passages, take notes, and search for those notes in NOOKstudy eBooks, according to the Barnes & Noble announcement.

Campus officials said NOOKstudy marks another way students can trim their ever-growing textbook bills with downloadable tomes accessible on a range of devices.

College students spend $800 to $1,100 a year on textbooks, according to government and industry reports. The cost of books has tripled between 1986 and 2004, rising more than 5 percent every year.

Carolyn Davis, director of auxiliary services at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said the free software that can be downloaded on PCs and Macs would be embraced on the 8,000-student campus because all freshmen are required to have laptops.

Barnes & Noble operates the college’s bookstore.

“Our students here are already encouraged to be [tech savvy],” Davis said, adding that students will be able to access NOOKstudy on up to two devices. “And this gives us a chance to serve and retain our customer base. … We want to do anything we can to gain their loyalty, and this is just one more way to do that.”

If students are able to find discounted textbooks using Barnes & Noble’s eBook software, Davis said, they won’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars every semester for books that don’t pertain to their interests or concentrations, but are required by professors.

“It’s become cost-prohibitive for many students, so it really becomes a matter of putting down an awful lot of money for a book you may or may not be using for your major,” she said.

At least one student group is skeptical about the latest addition to the eBook movement. Because many textbooks are not available for a discount when bought online, and because students can’t rent or sell back their used electronic books, the eBook model often costs more than traditional texts, according to research conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a Chicago-based organization that advocates for college students.

Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for Student PIRGs, said that web-based books are widely seen as the cost-effective alternative to pricey textbooks, but “if you do the math, in a lot of cases, students are actually losing money by going to a digital book.”

College students on campuses with textbook rental programs spend $130-$240 annually on books, according to a Student PIRGs study – just a fraction of the textbook costs at institutions without rental programs.

“Going digital should mean saving money for students,” Allen said. “And a lot of students think eBooks are just lame – just PDF copies of flat textbook pages on a computer screen.”

A Student PIRGs survey conducted among 500 college students in Oregon and Illinois showed that one-third were “comfortable” with online books, 22 percent were “uncomfortable,” and 45 percent were “in the middle.”

College students might spend untold hours scrolling through web pages in the spare time, Allen said, but studying via eBook isn’t yet widely accepted in higher education.

“Reading a news [article] online or a Facebook page is completely different from learning from a textbook online,” she said.

State legislators have responded the rising textbook costs with proposals to curb book prices and encourage a move toward digital options.

Ohio lawmakers considered a law this year that would require publishers to create electronic versions of all textbooks and mandate that bookstores pay back at least 50 percent of a book’s original price when students return at the end of a semester to sell the text back to the store. The proposal would also outlaw professors from receiving incentives for using a certain kind of textbook.

The Pennsylvania State Senate unanimously passed a bill in June that will require faculty members in the state’s public colleges and universities to use the “the least expensive, educationally sound textbooks.” The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) took issue with the legislation, saying in a statement that the new rules would have “a chilling effect on faculty members’ ability to exercise their academic freedom in planning courses of the highest quality.”

The AAUP mentioned the proliferation of eBooks as a potential solution to cutting students’ book costs while using quality texts.

“The Pennsylvania legislation is also worrying because it is part of a national trend to regulate textbook selection,” the statement said. “Certainly rising textbook prices are a serious matter. Increased availability of electronic versions of textbooks that certainly should prove less expensive is likely an inevitable feature of a changing marketplace. But the main ways to reduce the expense of a college education are to increase state appropriations to public colleges and universities and to eliminate unnecessary administrative positions.”


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