Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

University taking steps toward e-textbook use

The university is in the early stages of an initiative that could save students money by moving to electronic textbooks, particularly in large, introductory-level classes where textbook costs can be high.

Paul Courant, university librarian and dean of libraries, outlined the general scope and objectives of the project Monday in a presentation to the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.

He told the faculty governance body that a collaborative group with members from Information and Technology Services, Academic Affairs, the Library, and a number of academic units is pursuing a timetable that is expected to pilot next year.

The group currently is negotiating with textbook publishers and is developing a Request For Proposals to determine which technical platform will be used to deliver e-textbooks. That would be followed by a pilot program during the fall 2012 semester, he said.

Details of the pilot program or how many courses it will include have yet to be determined. Any move toward e-textbooks would be voluntary for faculty, Courant said.

“We’re hoping to create a structure in which people will be enthusiastic about volunteering, but we’re not interested in creating a structure that is going to impose a requirement that faculty members use e-textbooks for particular courses,” he said.

Courant said the project is being driven by a market in which textbook editions change frequently and students can pay as much as $1,000 or more for books each semester, particularly for new editions. He envisions a system in which an e-textbook would cost about 35 percent of a hard copy’s list price, and would be covered by a course fee.

“If the students don’t save significant amounts of money, we will have failed,” Courant said. Moving to e-textbooks would have other advantages, such as the ability to “mix and match” chapters from various textbooks, link to other sources of information, or print copies on demand if desired.

While the university plans to negotiate for published e-textbooks, Courant also proposed expanding the use of open materials, in which instructors could compile content into an electronic format that could be used free or at a significantly reduced price.

“Even if we paid people to do this, to the extent that students would not have to buy it there’s a real savings there,” he said. “If you could get someone to write a really good introductory textbook that was open, and charge a course fee for the use of that book of $30 a student, students are better off.”

During the winter 2011 term, an e-textbook working group conducted a limited pilot program among 177 students in five courses. It found students prefer electronic versions that they can download to their computer or some other device, and print if necessary, rather than having to read them online in a networked environment.

“Students like the e-books fine, but only if they’re as convenient as regular books,” Courant said.