Colleges taking a team approach to eTextbooks

“Enthusiasm is quite high,” Hilton said. “Our effort grew by word of mouth, and we had 11 volunteers within a day of announcing it at an advisory committee meeting, which is really remarkable.”

Osborne said there have been barriers even in eText programs that have had some success in higher education. Students still save money on eBooks, he said, but once they access the content on their laptop, they can’t view their eBooks on other devices, such as smart phones and tablets.

“So if you get that new iPad for Christmas, sorry,” he said.

Publishers also put strict limits on the number of pages a student or faculty member can print. One eText program allowed students to print just 57 pages every month.

“For a student who wants to print that 58th page, sorry, you’re going to have to wait until next month,” Osborne said.

Technology infrastructure, campus IT officials said, also is a barrier for many campus eTextbook efforts.

Bruce Maas, CIO and vice provost for IT at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said students on college campuses with limited internet speeds would run into connectivity issues when they read their eBooks on a laptop or tablet.

Students in the Internet2 pilot would have the luxury of accessing course materials through the group’s ultra high-speed web connection.

“It is going to be crippling to have situations where [students] are provided 10-megabit connections at their schools,” Maas said. “That’s why Internet2 is so critical.”

Campus technology leaders said eText pilot programs have been embraced with more urgency in recent years as the price of a college degree skyrockets, along with the cost of brand-new textbooks that students are often required to buy.

A survey at the University of California-Riverside last year caught many educators’ attention.

Six in 10 students at UC Riverside said they forgo purchasing recommended class supplies—including textbooks—because they’re strapped for cash. And while 60 percent of respondents to the survey said they “skipped buying [schools supplies] entirely,” two-thirds of students said they postponed buying textbooks and other supplies, leaving them without necessary class material in the first weeks of a course.

“As instructors, we need to think about how to make course materials available to our students,” said Steven Brint, the university’s vice provost for undergraduate education, who commissioned the survey of more than 5,300 undergraduates. “But at the end of the day, reading is essential to learning. Instructors should continue to assess whether students are reading assigned materials.”

UC Riverside students said the price of textbooks—especially when they’re not available via rental services or buy-back programs—has had a major impact on their social lives.

Eight in 10 students said they spent less money on food to cope with book costs, and 83 percent cut back on going out with friends.

Brint said UC Riverside instructors have done what they can to make textbooks more affordable. Some faculty members have made book copies available on the campus library’s reserve list. Others have posted textbook material on an online learning program called iLearn.

The university’s book store and Student Affairs officials responded to the survey findings by creating an on-campus book rental program designed to save students up to half off on their annual textbook purchases. The school also launched R’Books, a website that lets UC Riverside students trade and sell books among each other, rather than advertising the books on popular sites like Craigslist and Amazon.

“These were some things that we had been considering doing for a long time, but seeing these numbers really motivated us to act,” said Danny Kim, associate vice chancellor at UC Riverside.