The 10 biggest higher-ed tech stories of 2011

5. Indiana’s eText project could pave the way for more electronic textbooks on college campuses.

It’s been done before: Several colleges and universities have experimented with electronic textbooks, and Florida’s Daytona State University has been moving to an all-digital textbook environment since 2009. But Indiana University’s eText project is the first large-scale digital textbook initiative by a major university, and it offers the biggest sign to date that eBooks could begin to catch on in higher education.

In September, four publishers signed licensing agreements with IU to offer eBooks that can be read on a laptop, tablet, or smart phone. And because studies suggest that many college students still prefer traditional hardcover texts to electronic books, the inexpensive book options can be printed for a small fee.

One of the publishers participating in IU’s eText initiative, 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.

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 textbooks for their classes.

IU’s eText initiative also involves books from John Wiley & Sons Inc., Bedford Freeman & Worth Publishing Group, and W.W. Norton.
The university’s eText project was announced just a week after activists from the Student Public Interest Research Groups launched a national advocacy campaign for more affordable book options.

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.

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.”

The longer licensing period could help IU’s initiative succeed where other electronic textbook programs have struggled—but it’s not the only development that appears promising: Supplementing the online books available through the eText initiative will be software known as Courseload, a device-agnostic platform that allows students to read and annotate their electronic books.

Courseload works with any content, device, or learning management system, solving a key problem that has hindered the use of electronic textbooks so far, said CEO Michael Levitan: lack of compatibility between different texts from various publishers. Plus, Courseload includes built-in analytics that can provide real-time feedback on how the content is being used.

Joshua Davis, an IU Bloomington senior, called the eText platform “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 think this transition can’t happen soon enough.”

See also:

Indiana University tries to drive down textbook costs with eBooks

Florida college looks to become eBook pioneer

Students stage ‘textbook rebellion’ at University of Maryland

A classroom in your eBook?

‘Sex vs. Textbooks’ survey doesn’t jibe with student preferences

Self-destructing eBooks rile librarians

Will Amazon’s $200 tablet spark interest among schools?

eCampus News Staff

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