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.

The others schools are University of California at Berkeley, University of Virginia, Cornell University, University of Minnesota, and Ohio State University.

During the pilot, students will be able to download the books for free using software called Courseload. They will be able to access the books from any device with an internet browser.

In the future, students might pay a course-materials fee to the university, but likely at a cheaper price than the cost of print textbooks, Rust said.

Experts said there is an evolution toward eBooks, but many students and instructors still rely on hardback textbooks.

At Texas Christian University, some faculty and students are using digital books, but less than 2 percent of books sold at the bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble) are eBooks, said Lisa Albert, a TCU spokeswoman. One reason that eBooks haven’t overtaken the market is that many students still seem to find the best value in used printed books.

Elio DiStaola, spokesman for Follett Higher Education Group, said the pickup rate for the digital format varies greatly.

The Illinois-based company, which operates bookstores at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), the University of North Texas (UNT) and TCC, says students get their texts in a combination of ways, included printed books (purchased or rented) and digital course materials.

“We are still primarily a print business,” said DiStaola, adding that the group is preparing for growth in the digital sector.

Follett predicted in a recent analysis: “By the end of this decade, sophisticated tablets will be the primary platform, leveraging the power of technology with dazzling images, vast memory, speedy connections, convenient applications, and links to faculty and other students.”

Some instructors and students at UTA and UNT are using digital options offered through Follett. Through the company’s digital textbook platform, CafeScribe, students sign in to activate books they have rented or purchased. The service has a mobile app in the Apple Store and Android Market.

DiStaola said the app takes eBooks into a virtual cloud that students can access on the go.

Wells of TCC said some digital textbooks from publishing houses include more dynamic learning and increased communication between students and instructors.

For example, students can highlight important points while instructors can insert PowerPoint presentations or videos into a lesson.

“It’s a kind of a force magnifier,” Wells said. “You don’t get that in a hardback book.”

One of the main challenges is ensuring that students have a delivery system. Not everyone can afford well-known brands such as Kindle, Nook or iPad, Wells said.

A quick internet search of prices for different types of eBook readers turns up a list ranging from about $30 to about $300.

Another challenge, Wells said, is ensuring that all students have access. At the most basic level, students who don’t own a tablet or computer can use computers at the library.

Access and affordability are key issues nationwide.

In California, the Twenty Million Minds Foundation is working with the Central California Community Colleges Committed to Change Consortium to give students access to free digital textbooks, according to a recent report in The Bakersfield Californian.

The effort is part of a $20 million federal grant program to train 3,000 students in healthcare, agriculture and clean energy.

The project relies on learning material developed by faculty.

“We are early enough in this whole research that that is a good question to think about,” Wells said.

(c)2012 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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