Florida college looks to become eBook pioneer

iPads will be among to eReader choices for Daytona State College students.
iPads will be among to eReader choices for Daytona State College students.

An all-eTextbook campus won’t just make Florida’s Daytona State College the envy of the education-technology world. The program will also save academic careers cut short when students can’t afford their books, pushing Daytona officials to find an electronic alternative and perhaps serve as a model for higher education.

Daytona State, a 35,000-student institution and a former community college, has been moving toward a “100 percent” eBook campus since 2009, using electronic texts in English, computer science, and economics courses, said Rand Spiwak, Daytona’s chief financial officer and executive vice president.

Daytona’s eBook initiative would allow students to buy electronic texts for about $20 apiece, Spiwak said, and the books would be accessible on any web-enabled eReader. The college would make affordable eReaders available to students or students could read their books on one of the thousands of on-campus computers.

And if students or faculty members still want the traditional hardback textbook, they can print out the eBook’s pages and put them in a three-ring binder.

Daytona State’s goal should be welcome news for cash-strapped students: Officials want to reduce annual textbook costs – now at around $1,100 – by 50 to 80 percent, even after the purchase of an eReader like the Apple iPad.

“When you look at why students withdraw from schools, so many of the responses are textbook related,” Spiwak said, citing a Daytona survey that showed students were taking classes without buying the pricey textbook, or using an older version of the book handed down to them from a friend or family member.

“Those people just got behind and failed,” he said.

As the college’s CFO, Spiwak said, it’s his job to find ways to keep students enrolled. Cutting book costs that can be equal to tuition costs became a “win-win” strategy.

Spiwak said the college has contacted publishers and manufacturers who might provide eReaders for students, and if all goes according to plan, the campus-wide eBook rollout should begin next summer, so campus technologists can work out any “bugs” before students return for the fall 2011 semester.

“We’ve been slow and deliberate because we didn’t have a model to emulate,” he said, adding that Daytona administrators looked for an eBook program model institution for about three months before giving up. “And we know that once this catches on, students are going to demand it.”

Daytona’s eBook program is gaining national attention just six months after a national survey showed digital textbooks may be a ways off from replacing traditional books, especially since online textbook rental services have made hardcover books more affordable in recent years.

Seventy-four percent of students surveyed by the National Association of College Stores (NACS), a nonprofit trade organization representing 3,000 campus retailers, preferred printed textbooks for their college classes.

The study, released in May, also found that more than half of college students surveyed on 19 campuses said they “were unsure about purchasing digital textbooks or would not consider buying them even if they were available.”

Laura Cozart, a research manager for NACS, said the overwhelming preference for traditional textbooks was “not surprising,” because “every new innovation takes time before the mainstream population embraces it.”

However, 41 percent of students said they “regularly” access reading materials from the BlackBerries, iPhones, and similar devices, according to the NACS survey.

Faculty at another Florida college, Florida State College at Jacksonville, grabbed educators’ attention last year when they created 20 electronic textbooks 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.

And students who use the 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.

Colleges and universities have traditionally cut textbook costs by partnering with a single publisher, allowing the school to buy massive book orders at a discount and sell them for less in the campus book store.

The Daytona State eBook plan would let instructors and professors choose which publisher to work with and for how long. This, Spiwak has been told when discussing the initiative with others in higher education, could prove a major roadblock in the school’s path toward an all-eBook campus.

“We’ve been told that we’ll fail, that this is too hard,” he said. “Well, they don’t know us. … There will be no textbooks in the future. How quick that future is we’ll all have to wait and see.”

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