Bulk-Purchasing E-Textbook Experiment Expands to More Colleges

An experimental business model for delivering e-textbooks is expanding, with some adjustments, to 26 colleges and universities this fall. The institutions will participate in a pilot project in which they will buy digital course materials in bulk from publishers to reduce costs for students, and the project’s leaders say they are dealing with obstacles faced in an earlier test of the approach.

The project is a partnership of the colleges, the Internet2 high-speed networking group, Educause, the e-book broker Courseload, and McGraw-Hill’s education-publishing division. Last spring five research universities paid $20,000 each to provide up to 1,000 students with e-books and the Courseload platform. This semester a new pricing model that charges around $35,000 for universities with more students using e-books will be added, said Greg Jackson, vice president of Educause.

The project drew mixed reviews last spring, according to a final report based on surveys of participating professors and students. While the students appreciated the e-books’ affordability, many found the technology difficult to navigate and didn’t use its collaborative features.

Mr. Jackson said the new pilot project would expand beyond research universities to a variety of other institution types, including community colleges and liberal-arts colleges.

The program has taken students’ feedback into consideration by making the Courseload e-book platform “smoother and more sophisticated,” Mr. Jackson said. Most student complaints last spring involved difficulties with searching the e-books and using them easily across a variety of devices—for example, moving from reading on a computer to reading on a mobile phone.

Of the five universities that participated in the spring pilot, three—Cornell University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison—will continue with the fall project.

The pilot project will monitor e-books’ integration into campus technology and focus on whether e-textbooks improve student learning, according to Shel Waggener, senior vice president of Internet2.

“Is there an association between the ease of digital content and the speed by which faculty can move through material?” he said. “Does enhanced collaboration have any pedagogical impact—do students score better?”

Negotiations are under way for another pilot program in the spring of 2013 that officials hope will embrace 50 to 75 universities.

“Those of use who’ve been involved in this hope and believe that this model—which is essentially a licensing model based on institutional size—will replace individual students’ buying individual texts,” Mr. Jackson said. “That model is too cumbersome and is adding costs unnecessarily.”

Following is the list of colleges and universities participating this fall:

Baylor University (Tex.)
California State Polytechnic University at Pomona
Castleton State College (Vt.)
Colorado State University at Fort Collins
Community College of Vermont
Cornell University (N.Y.)
Dartmouth College (N.H.)
Iowa State University of Science and Technology
Madison Area Technical College (Wis.)
Miami University (Ohio)
Michigan State University
Middlebury College (Vt.)
Northern Kentucky University
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville
State University of New York at Buffalo
State University of New York at Stony Brook
University of Alaska at Anchorage
University of California at Berkeley
University of Hawaii-Manoa
University of Iowa
University of Kentucky
University of South Florida
University of Virginia
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Virginia Tech
Wichita State University (Kan.)

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Nomadic Lass]

Correction (9/5/2012, 5:44 p.m.): Because of incomplete information from the pilot project’s organizers, this article originally included imprecise names on the list of participating institutions. Among the participants are Castleton State College and the Community College of Vermont, not the Vermont State Colleges system. Also, only the University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus and the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus are participants, not their respective systems. The list has been updated to reflect this correction.

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