Six in 10 students said in a recent survey that they forgo buying required books because textbooks are too pricey.

Reining in exorbitant textbook costs is no longer a campus-by-campus venture: A unified approach, powered by EDUCAUSE and the Internet2 consortium’s NET+ cloud-based collaborative purchasing program, could make low-cost electronic textbooks available now, ed-tech leaders hope.

Colleges experimenting with digital textbooks can take months—sometimes years—to negotiate with publishers before their school’s modest eBook program is introduced to students now paying upwards of $1,100 a year for books.

This fall, campus technology leaders will closely track the results of an expansive eTextbook pilot program ranging across 28 campuses, creating what many in higher education believe could be a model for quickly bringing low-cost textbook options to students who, in some cases, have stopped buying required texts because they cannot afford the books.

The participating schools will receive deep discounts on textbook orders, because the colleges will ensure that every student uses the textbook’s free electronic version. Guaranteed participation in the digital textbook effort makes this program different from myriad others tried on campuses across the country.

The pilot is run through Internet2’s NET+ Services, which negotiates with companies on behalf of its member campuses. Students and faculty will use McGraw-Hill Education eBooks along with an eReader and annotation software program made by Courseload, allowing class content to be viewed through a college’s learning management system.

Nik Osborne, head of Indiana University’s eText initiative, said roping many colleges and universities into one pilot program would accelerate the adoption of electronic textbooks, a decidedly slow process that has frustrated advocates of low-cost textbook alternatives.

“There’s no need for each institution to go figure it out on their own,” Osborne said during an Internet2 member meeting, adding that it took IU seven months to negotiate with publishers before the university could unveil its eText push. “Why not learn from other schools rather than reinventing the wheel? … We don’t have that much time in higher education as a whole. We have a very perishable window right now.”

Campus IT chiefs said joining Internet2’s established eText infrastructure would bring a functional eBook pilot program to a campus in less than two months—a fraction of the time many colleges have spent working out the legal ins and outs of transitioning from traditional texts to electronic versions.

“Efficient markets have informed buyers and sellers, and this multi-university pilot is a big leap forward for institutions to better understand how they can shape the market during the transition to digital,” said Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Indiana University.

James Hilton, vice president and chief information officer at the University of Virginia, said the national eTextbook pilot initiative has drawn interest from faculty members at his university.

“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.


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