Community colleges take a closer look at eBooks

Digital books could save students hundreds every semester.

Major universities aren’t the only schools testing the eBook market. Tarrant County College (TCC) in Texas is the latest small campus to study whether a shift to digital textbooks will lessen the financial burden on students while allowing them to rely on tools that make learning more interactive.

The college district’s move to explore the advantages of digital textbooks comes as more higher education institutions and students turn to this medium for their lessons. Students would carry their textbooks on a portable eBook reader, Apple iPad, or laptop computer instead of their backpacks.

A shift to digital, an idea that first formed with input from TCC faculty, also comes amid continuing increases in tuition.

Experts said tapping into this technology will help students cut some of their expenses — a fiscal advantage stressed by the University of Wisconsin (UW) Madison campus and five other major universities that have launched digital textbook pilot programs during the spring 2012 semester.

“There’s always been a sense that one of the heaviest burdens of college students is textbooks,” said David Wells, TCC’s vice chancellor of academic affairs. For example, a student would pay $156 in tuition for three semester hours but more than that for textbooks.

The Twenty Million Minds Foundation, a California-based group that supports eliminating barriers to higher education, states that between 1986 and 2004, textbook prices rose 186 percent in the United States.

“The root of the problem, what we find, is that a fairly significant number of students are not buying textbooks for the class because of the cost,” Wells said.

TCC leaders will receive a recommendation this summer from a committee that will determine how shifting to eBooks would work with publishers and the bookstore.

Instructors across the district’s campuses must also decide on uniform sets of eBooks for each subject.

“I’m not going to tell the faculty which book they have to use,” Wells said.

The TCC district also needs to assess wireless capabilities to determine whether it will need upgrades with increased usage of computer tablets.

“At this point, nothing is budgeted for this project,” he said.

The UW pilot is led by Internet2, a higher education research network, and will allow the universities to pool their buying power and theoretically negotiate discounted prices from the textbook companies.