More than two dozen colleges and universities are examining whether a different business model for textbooks works for their institutions. One of them is a two-year technical college.

These higher education institutions are joining an expanded e-textbook pilot organized earlier this year by Internet2 — an advanced networking consortium — and EDUCAUSE — a nonprofit higher education association. The first pilots, based on Indiana University's e-textbook pilots, happened in spring 2012 at five universities.

In the expanded test announced Sept. 4, the participating institutions will pay between $20,000 and $35,000, conduct research and seek feedback in the fall 2012 semester. Campuses cover universitywide licensing fees for the rights to use e-textbooks in specific classes. E-textbooks will replace paper textbooks. And a publisher-neutral platform will replace publisher-specific software.

Faculty and students at each college will test out McGraw-Hill e-textbooks on a common software platform called Courseload that's designed for reading and annotation. But the goal isn't to pick one publisher and one platform for everyone. Next year, Internet2 and EDUCAUSE plan to do another test that will involve multiple platforms and publishers.

"It's important for higher education and, most importantly, for students to have options going forward," said Shel Waggener, senior vice president of Internet2 and former technology chief of California State University, Berkeley. "Now we have the option to rethink the integration of content with the pedagogy with collaboration between students in very new ways."

The research

This semester, the universities and colleges are researching the impact of e-textbooks on pedagogy, Waggener said. They'll be asking questions like, "Does a common platform help improve student collaboration?" "Do faculty and student interactions increase with the content being online?" "Could faculty adjust their plan in the classroom because of online materials?"

With a larger sample size afforded by participation from more than two dozen institutions, the research will provide more value when it's published than the spring 2012 report released in August, Waggener said. The spring study found that only 12 percent of students chose to purchase a paper copy of their e-textbook. Most of them used the digital copy they were given.

Lower cost and portability of e-textbooks ranked high on students' lists when considering whether they would purchase e-textbooks in the future. And students had a tough time reading the e-textbook. As for faculty, most of them didn't use the collaboration features on the software platform and said they need more training.

Colleges and universities involved in fall 2012 pilots
Baylor University
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Castleton State College
Colorado State University
Community College of Vermont
Cornell University
Dartmouth College
Iowa State University of Science and Technology
Madison Area Technical College
Miami University
Michigan State University
Middlebury College
Northern Kentucky University
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville
Stony Brook University
University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
University of Alaska Anchorage
University of California, Berkeley
University of Hawaii Manoa
University of Iowa
University of Kentucky
University of South Florida
University of Virginia
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Virginia Tech
Wichita State University

Why a two-year college signed up

Most of the institutions on this pilot list are research universities. But one two-year college, Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, signed up for the pilot for two reasons: By lowering the cost of higher education, the college hopes to make education more accessible to students, said Turina Bakken, Madison Area Technical College's associate vice president for learner success. And the college also would like to create a stronger teaching and learning environment that allows faculty to make classrooms more interactive.

Fifteen sections, 11 faculty and about 450 students are participating this fall at the college. Before claiming this model is the next greatest thing, Madison Area Technical College wants to see how it works with different faculty teaching and learning styles.

"Sometimes in higher education, like anywhere, a new technology or possibility comes along, and everybody jumps on it and looks at it as the answer," Bakken said. "We want to be careful in this approach and make sure it is really going to work for all of our students."

Are e-readers and e-textbooks accessible?

Three of the five original universities in the first Internet2 / EDUCAUSE e-textbook test have decided to stick with the pilot this fall: University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Virginia; and Cornell University.

The University of Minnesota opted not to extend its participation after conducting an accessibility study that published in the eText Spring 2012 Pilot Report released in August.

"We understand that Courseload has a desire to make their product and delivery of e-texts accessible," the accessibility study conducted by the University of Minnesota states. "They should certainly be applauded and encouraged. However, we cannot recommend the use of the Courseload application at this time. As a University of Minnesota compliance partner, the accessibility issues outlined in this document would put the University of Minnesota at risk for litigation. We cannot support the adoption of an application or system that allows instant access to course materials for all but those with disabilities."

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers ed tech behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Culinary experiments, travel adventures, beautiful landscapes.