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A Textbook Case: Why Digital College Materials Haven’t Taken Off PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Megan Stephenson   
Wednesday, 23 September 2009 08:13

At the beginning the school year, in a chemistry class at St. Ambrose University, Professor Margaret Legg offered students the option to buy a less-expensive e-book instead of the usual physical textbook. No one opted for the digital version.

Kelsey Berg, a sophomore majoring in biology, said she had already bought the hardcover edition. Had the e-book been offered before she bought it, Berg said she still wouldn't have purchased it. "I don't like reading on a computer. It's hard to concentrate," she said, adding that it wasn't worth the cost, either, because one can't sell an e-book back.

Many college students are embracing digital and open-source textbooks, which are accessed through computers and digital readers such as Amazon's Kindle. For some, it provides a more convenient way to carry multiple textbooks. Beyond being easier on students' backs, e-books are also better for the environment, because no natural resources are used in the production or transportation of a physical book.

But the major selling point is a lower cost compared to new textbooks. Textbooks cost an average of $900 per semester, according to the federal Government Accountability Office. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) has been advocating for reducing the prices of textbooks, which they say have risen faster than the rate of inflation in the past several years.

Although e-books are often 50 percent less expensive than unused print editions of textbooks, the cost evaluation isn't quite so clear-cut. In many cases, there's little or no cost savings to students in the long run.

And some people, like Berg, resist e-books for other reasons.

Last year, PIRG surveyed around 500 students to determine the popularity and affordability of digital textbooks. Twenty-two percent were uncomfortable reading on a computer screen, a third of respondents were comfortable, and the remainder were in between.

In a poll earlier this month by the Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa newspaper, 65 percent of students said they would not buy a digital textbook because they prefer to read print. The second-largest group (15 percent) would buy a digital textbook because of the convenience.

While the National Association of College Stores estimates that digital textbooks made up only 2 to 3 percent of textbook sales in the past year, publishers evidently see this as a growing market; more than one-third of popular textbook titles are available as e-books, according to CourseSmart, an online digital-textbook retailer.

St. Ambrose University in Davenport and Augustana College in Rock Island have occasionally offered digital versions of textbooks to their students, according to their bookstore managers. Linda Macumber, manager of the St. Ambrose bookstore, said that it is up to individual faculty members to choose textbooks, and she hasn't had many requests for digital versions. Scott Community College and Western Illinois University do not currently offer any e-textbooks.

The Choices

Some mainstream publishers, such as Pearson and McGraw/Hill, sell digital versions of their textbooks as PDFs through their Web sites or through Amazon.com for the Kindle, for about the same price as a hardcover edition.

However, a more popular route is through CourseSmart (CourseSmart.com), an e-book distributor that sells popular classroom textbooks from 12 publishers at a discounted price. These textbooks are digital versions of texts instructors might already be using.

CourseSmart offers 7,000 titles, and its sales this year have increased 600 percent from last year at this time. Gabrielle Zucker, a spokesperson for CourseSmart, said the company, and digital sales in general, are growing rapidly because students "appreciate the guaranteed, up-front savings, without the mystery of buyback."

The issue of buyback -- through which students can get 30 to 50 percent of a book's retail price back through the campus bookstore -- complicates the question of cost with digital texts. In some cases, a new or used physical textbook after buyback is less expensive to a student than even a discounted digital edition. In other cases, a new edition of a textbook means that students get no money for their old texts -- making a discounted digital edition cheaper. Macumber said digital versions available at St. Ambrose are less expensive than new hard copies but more expensive than used copies.

The University of Iowa has emphasized digital books more in its classrooms. Joe Ziegler, manager of Iowa Book in Iowa City, offers the digital textbooks himself; after the instructor orders a textbook, he checks if it also comes in digital form.

Ziegler said that although his digital sales have doubled since last year, e-book sales are still a "drop in the bucket" compared to regular textbooks.

He said an average textbook costs $100 at Iowa Book, and with minimal wear and tear it's worth $50 at buyback. An e-book costs an average of $60, "so you're better off with the regular textbook," he said.

"Hard to Be Unhappy with Free"

Open-source texts are meant to provide a lower-cost alternative to traditional textbooks and their digital equivalents. Open-source textbooks are digital only and found on sites such as Flat World Knowledge (FlatWorldKnowledge.com). The company provides its textbooks free online or in PDF for about $40.

Open-source textbooks also allow more freedom than traditional e-books. PIRG found that 75 percent of currently offered e-books have printing restrictions and expiration dates. Books available through Flat World Knowledge allow unlimited access and printing.

Jon Clauss, a computer-science professor at Augustana, used a digital source for an upper-level course last year. He said he wasn't happy with the textbooks he used in the past and came across a suggestion for digital sources. Mathematicians at San Francisco State University and Binghamton University put a PDF course packet online, which Clauss found was a better fit for his small class. The open-source book did not cost the students or Clauss anything.

"Open sources are important in computer science and computer programming," Clauss said. "I figured it would spill over into textbooks eventually. [Books] should be freely produced and disseminated."

He added that his students also liked the freedom of online accessibility, and "it's hard to be unhappy with free."

Nursing students at St. Ambrose have also used digital textbooks. They are offered a "bundled" option during their junior year, which includes a textbook -- both in print and online -- and other Web resources for the same price as the textbook by itself. Rose Hasenmiller, an assistant professor of nursing, said that students' "quality of work keeps getting better all the time," which she attributed to the online resources such as the digital textbook.

She also said that students often use these online materials for years as a reference library, and students have commented on the ease of the online edition.

"Students are the best salespeople," she said.

Zucker of CourseSmart said 70 percent of its consumers said they would buy digital again.

The University of Iowa's Ziegler estimates digital textbooks will be mainstream within a decade: "At some point it's going to get dramatic. Kids in elementary and high school now are provided this [technology] in school; they're used to it."


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