More U.S. Universities Enter the E-Textbook Fray

An e-textbook pilot expands to more than two dozen colleges and universities this fall.

by / September 6, 2012
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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."

All of these institutions put a high priority on accessibility, Waggener said. These are pilots precisely because issues like accessibility need to be worked out. The transition to e-textbooks presents the same challenges as those when universities moved to Google or Microsoft for email and other services. Those companies had to make their products more accessible, but at first had limited understanding of what that entailed.

"As more things move to digital content, and it's interactive digital content, what are accommodations that are going to be necessary?" Waggener asked. "No platform, publisher or product is 100 percent where we want them to be. So the more tight the relationship is with all of these providers in providing them regular feedback in a coordinated way, the more likely it is that we can move that industry forward faster to be fully accommodating."

Future plans

As issues such as accessibility continue to be worked out, Internet2 and EDUCAUSE plan to continue these pilots in spring 2013. For those pilots, multiple platforms and publishers will participate, giving higher education institutions more options to explore.

Waggener encourages other universities to get in the e-textbook game.

"Universities should not sit on the sidelines and wait for this to become resolved because resolution is not going to be an absolute; it's going to be a continuum, and we all need to have a stake in the game to influence the outcomes," Waggener said. "What is it right now? Really quite a bit of creative chaos. And I think that's a place where educational institutions normally thrive."

This article was originally published by the Center for Digital Education.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.

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