Indiana University tries to drive down textbook costs with eBooks

Students are beginning to protest high textbook costs more frequently.

Many Indiana University (IU) students will see their textbook costs plummet starting in the spring 2012 semester after IU officials agreed to make low-cost electronic textbooks more available on the university’s eight campuses.

Four publishers signed licensing agreements Sept. 6 with IU that will offer eBooks that can read on a laptop or a computer tablet, such as the Apple iPad or Amazon Kindle, and a smartphone. And since college students overwhelmingly prefer traditional hardcover texts, the inexpensive books options can be printed for a small fee.

One of the publishers participating in IU’s eText, Flat World Knowledge, will provide anytime access to eBooks and other course material for a one-time fee of $19.95, according to a company announcement. Books bought through the eText program will save students about two-thirds the price of a retail textbook, said Brad Wheeler, IU’s vice president for information technology.

The low-cost texts won’t be available to every IU student, however.

Professors won’t be required to select their course’s textbook from the university’s eText program, but Jeff Shelstad, Flat World Knowledge’s CEO, said by simply making the eBooks available, faculty will feel the pressure from cost-conscious college students.

“They’re going to have to explain why their book is so much more expensive than the others,” Shelstad said of professors who choose traditional – and expensive – textbooks for their classes. “I think there will be a little bit of pressure on [faculty members] to take a close look at” the books available through IU’s eText program.

Shelstad said he expects IU class sections that use inexpensive eBooks to fill up quickly when spring 2012 registration starts.

“Students aren’t going to have a difficult time seeing the value in this,” he said. “They’re going to rush to our prices.”

IU’s eText initiative will also involve books from John Wiley & Sons Inc., Bedford Freeman & Worth Publishing Group, and W.W. Norton.

The university’s experimentation with open-license eBooks comes a week after activists from the Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRGs) launched a national advocacy campaign for affordable book options. Students gathered at the University of Maryland College Park Aug. 29 to rail against skyrocketing book prices and present a range of affordable solutions.

IU’s partnership with open textbook companies “represents a step toward bridging the gap between the expensive textbooks of today and the affordable, accessible learning materials of tomorrow,” said Nicole Allen, a Student PIRGs spokeswoman.

Student PIRGs, in an announcement, complimented IU for pledging to warn students of eBook fees associated with the campus’s eText program.

“[Students] will at least know what they are getting into, and have the right to vote with their feet if the price is too high,” the announcement said. “This is an absolutely critical feature for any course material fee, and IU should take care to ensure the price quoted at registration is the price students actually pay.”

Allen commended IU for allowing students access to their eBooks until they graduate from the university – much longer than the typical 180-day licensing restriction places on many eBooks – but added that any licensing limitations “endorses a potentially dangerous model where ticking time bomb textbooks are the norm.”

Seven in 10 student respondents to a Student PIRGs survey said they had foregone buying a required text because they couldn’t afford it.

Supplementing the online books available through the eText initiative will be software known as Courseload, which allows students to read and annotate their electronic books. A student can use Concourse, a technology developed in Indiana, to make notes and work with classmates through a computer or mobile device.

Joshua Davis, an IU Bloomington senior, called the Concourse eBook system “an efficient way for me to keep my notes organized for class.”

“I was able to access my textbook remotely, both online and offline — plus, I didn’t have to lug another heavy book around campus,” said Davis, adding that he spent more than $800 on textbooks for the fall 2011 semester. “I was able to access my textbook remotely, both online and offline — plus, I didn’t have to lug another heavy book around campus. … I think this transition can’t happen soon enough.”

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