February 1, 2012 — The next time you see University of Virginia students fiddling with their cellphones or iPads, don't assume they are procrastinating. They just might be reading a textbook.
Students in select courses are testing an e-text pilot program in which all students receive electronic copies of assigned textbooks – free of charge. U.Va., along with four other Internet2 member institutions, is participating in a one-semester trial using e-texts published by McGraw-Hill. Internet2 is a networking consortium of the U.S. research and education communities.
The texts are made available online through Courseload, a platform that integrates with universities' learning management platforms; students at U.Va. see the resource as an extra tool on their course's Collab site. The other participating schools are the University of California, Berkeley; Cornell University; University of Minnesota; and the University of Wisconsin.
This semester, just under 400 students in seven courses in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies are participating in the pilot.
Mike McPherson, associate vice president and deputy chief information officer, explained that during the trial period, e-texts are free for students because the Office of the Vice President and Chief Information Officer paid the $25,000 pilot participation fee from a fund reserved for special projects.
Students have long been able to purchase e-texts on an individual basis. The pilot program seeks to pass along savings on those texts by guaranteeing publishers that all students enrolled in the participating courses would use the e-texts, McPherson said. He added that University-wide adoption of e-texts could give U.Va. greater leverage in negotiating prices with publishers, which could translate into significant price reductions for students.
The program is another in a series of University efforts to make textbooks more affordable. The U.Va. Bookstore has long been a leader in those efforts, director Jonathan Kates said. It was the first university bookstore in the nation to contract with a third party to provide textbook rentals to students. Just this semester, the bookstore was able to procure 30,000 used texts for resale to students, and it pays between 45 percent and 50 percent of the new-book price for texts after the semester, providing professors have ordered them for the following semester.
The bookstore offers 160 e-text titles, Kates said. "There are plenty of good reasons to use e-books," he said. "I'm all for them – that's why we sell them."
McPherson explained that one or more mechanisms for obtaining and using e-texts could be offered University-wide. Publishers are increasingly making a wide range of titles available as e-texts, he noted.
"The participating universities are negotiating with the publishers once and with one voice, which helps us achieve economies of scale that we wouldn't have been able to achieve independently," McPherson said. "In addition, one of the characteristics of the approach used in this pilot is that all students in a participating course get e-texts, which helps guarantee the publisher a funding stream and makes the approach more attractive to them."
Though the trial is still in its first weeks, professors who volunteered to test the pilot said the software has great potential. Larry Richards, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, teaches a graduate-level statistics course in an asynchronous mode, meaning he pre-records lectures that students then access remotely instead of attending lectures in a classroom.
Richards said he enjoys the software because it integrates well with his teaching style and he knows that on day one of class, every student has the book and he can jump right into the material. He said he uses e-text tools to highlight sections of the book, add comments and emphasize which sections are most important to read to aid in student comprehension.
"Those students I've talked to are delighted to have it so they can look at it on their laptops or iPads or what have you," Richards said. "This whole business of students just being able to carry around the text on their laptop – that's going to be revolutionary."
Mark Sherriff, assistant professor of computer science, said he also enjoys the interactive learning tools that accompany e-texts. For both him and his tech-savvy students, the main challenge lies simply in incorporating e-text use into their routine. "A lot of people have to get used to not doing the traditional page flip," he said.
Going forward, Sherriff sees himself looking over text comments made by students and addressing them in class. "It's a learning curve for faculty in addition to students," he said.
In fields such as programming and digital media, knowledge bases change very rapidly, so much so that a three-year-old computer science textbook is considered outdated, he said. Technology that allows for the dynamic update of information and a virtual library is a powerful tool that saves time, effort and space.
"Knowledge is available and we should be able to make it available to anyone anywhere at any time," Sherriff said. "I would be shocked if we didn't eventually go to all e-text."
McPherson said the University will survey faculty and students periodically during the semester to gauge their satisfaction with e-texts in general and the delivery model in particular. "We believe that e-texts are the way of the future," he said. "We are using this pilot to evaluate only one of the many models that might be adopted for providing e-texts to students. We will use what we have learned, combined with experiences with other models here and elsewhere, to plan for future large-scale deployment of e-texts."
In 2009, the Darden School of Business joined a pilot program that tested Amazon's Kindle DX as a classroom e-text tool. The device received mixed reviews because of limitations in the ability to make notes or quickly pull up notes during a class discussion.
— By Kate Colwell