College Campus Becomes a Testing Ground for E-Textbooks

February 25, 2009 01:33 PM
by Christopher Coats
As schools across the country explore the possibilities of e-learning tools, one Missouri campus has decided to go all in with a plan offering only digital textbooks to its students.

Going Paperless

At Northwest Missouri State University, administrators launched a program this year to digitize course textbooks, offering students laptops and digital readers instead of books.

During the year’s first semester, 500 students were given Sony Digital Readers as a part of a study to test the effectiveness of all-digital textbooks, though all the college’s students had access to the content through their required textbooks.

Responding to the limitations of a reader vs. an interactive laptop, the textbooks were expanded this semester and a new model of the Sony tool was introduced.

As all textbooks were previously rented from the school, NMS was free to pursue the new plan without protest from publishers or local bookstores.

Context: A digital campus life

The move toward providing class content in different formats is part of a broader, national trend to digitize college campuses, which has required physical and curriculum changes.

“Digital content has become an integral part of students’ work—It requires more than a simple pen or typewriter,” reported EdTech Magazine. “Universities are exploring new ways to provide both the physical space and the technical support for it.”

In the case of NMS, the new digital textbooks offer a more comprehensive view of the subject matter through multimedia content and tools, including video, audio and community components.

Further, the textbooks are a direct response to the changing nature of how today’s students learn and absorb information.

The school’s move toward digital textbooks reflects an industry-wide acceptance of e-learning tools.

Currently, only 18 percent of college students have reported purchasing a digital textbook, experts expect that number to rise significantly in coming years due to both cost and the timeliness of content.

Although educational institutions and ultimately students may face the initial cost of investing in a laptop or digital reader, the cost may still be less than traditional publishing. NMS expects to save 50 percent of what they paid for their traditional textbook program.

Schools and universities are finding their resources quickly dated, forcing them to pay more often.

“Usually textbooks are out of date as soon as you print them,” said Dana Lanham, a University of North Carolina professor who plans on using a new no-fee online textbook program.

Starting small with textbooks for just four business and finance classes, Flat Earth Knowledge is one of many online content providers venturing into education literature.

Meanwhile, companies such as Connexions, based at Rice University, have settled on a building-block approach with series of short lessons and explanations that can be mixed and matched to create curriculum.

Flexibility, low costs and an ability to be updated regularly, have made this type of open source content increasingly popular among school districts and universities.

While there is no shortage of demand, businesses and critics are watching to see if the various online providers have found a business model that actually turns a profit.

Flat Earth plans to make most of their profit from the sale of supplementary material, though detractors have suggested that this would not be enough to attract quality academic contributors.

Related Topic: More accessible tools

Companies like Sony and Amazon have begun marketing versions of their digital readers to schools and younger students, to ease the transition from traditional textbooks to e-versions.

While the new version of Amazon’s Kindle promises more accessibility and easier access to thousands of books, plans to increase the tool’s viewing screen would be more hospitable to the needs of students.

If the larger Kindle is released, it could be useful for high school and college educators who are increasingly relying on textbooks published online. As findingDulcinea explains, they are cheaper and more up-to-date than their print versions.

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