Online textbooks let students share notes across the globe

One-third of students surveyed said they were "comfortable" with eBooks.
One-third of students surveyed said they were "comfortable" with eBooks.

Florida State College at Jacksonville faculty have created 20 electronic textbooks that are accessible on a free online platform that lets students take notes in the margins, search for key terms, and share notes with peers and professors through an interactive social-networking feature.

Students don’t need to buy any additional hardware to use the college’s eBook program, officials said. Instead, they simply download an eReader application called CafeScribe, which also brings students together through social networking to form online study groups.

And students who use the CafeScribe eBooks aren’t limited to contact with their professors and fellow students. Any student from any campus in the world can share content and study notes with any other student if they’re using the same web-based textbook, according to an April 21 announcement from Follett Higher Education Group, the Illinois-based used book supplier that makes CafeScribe.

CafeScribe’s Digital Textbook Store has a wide range of marked-down books, along with lists of “others reading this book” and students “adding notes to this book” at the bottom of the web page. Visitors can click on the names of students reading the book to see which other digital books they’ve bought from the CafeScribe marketplace.

A book titled “Chemistry,” for example, is on sale for $120.65, a 44-percent discount from the original price of $213.95. Another book, “Exploring Psychology,” is marked down from $96 to $46.67. Students’ notes are displayed on the book’s web page, including helpful snippets like: “The part of the brain that coordinates voluntary movement is the cerebellum,” and “The neural structure that regulates eating, drinking, and body temperature is the hypothalamus.”

CafeScribe eBooks are available online and on more than 850 college campuses, according to the company’s web site. Florida State College’s online textbooks average 250 pages, less than half the length of the traditional 600-page college textbook, according to the school.

Faculty members made the CafeScribe eBooks through the school’s SIRIUS course development project, which develops affordable and interactive classroom material for college students.

The SIRIUS initiative creates courses ranging from entirely online to hybrid models that have students in a traditional lecture hall occasionally and doing class work on the web throughout the semester. The program was launched with help from a $728,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The campus is part of a 10-college consortium that provides web-based professional development to its faculty members free of charge.

“The digital textbook market is maturing fast,” said Jack Chambers, chief operating officer for Florida State College at Jacksonville’s SIRIUS program, adding that customization and social-networking connections have made online textbooks more appealing in recent years. “Now that we see what digital textbooks can do, we are asking ourselves what we would like them to do.”

Florida State College at Jacksonville’s partnership with CafeScribe is just the latest eBook development to come from Florida since last fall. The board that oversees Florida’s state universities launched a program in September that will offer free online textbooks to students; the program makes printed books available as well, for about half the price that students now pay every semester.

More than 120 textbooks are available to Florida state university students for downloading free of charge through the program, called Orange Grove Texts Plus.

The initiative is a partnership with University Press of Florida. And if a student wants a printed book, he or she can buy the text for up to half off the prices found at most retail and online book stores, University Press officials said. The books will be sold for $29 to $54 apiece.

Orange Grove officials are touring the state to lobby college faculty members to submit their textbooks to the free online repository. Cathy Alfano, a project manager for Orange Grove, said California bolstered its online textbook collection with a similar strategy.

An Orange Grove survey found that 22 percent of students were “uncomfortable” reading from a laptop or personal computer screen, while 33 percent of students said they were “comfortable.” Three-quarters of students in the survey said they preferred to read a print textbook instead of a digital textbook, and 60 percent of students said they would buy a discounted printed book even if the text was available for free online.



Florida State College at Jacksonville’s SIRIUS program

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