Imagine a world where you didn’t have to wait in line at the bookstore, your textbook didn’t cost $200 and you could pick whether you wanted to read it online, watch interactive videos or open a traditional print product.
It isn’t that far off. Universities across the U.S. are exploring alternative textbook models to lower costs and increase access.
Almost two-thirds of students did not buy a textbook at some point during college because of the cost, according to a U.S. PIRG study released last week.
“That trip to the bookstore at the beginning of every semester can really be tough for students who are scrimping,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says. “It is one of many of the costs of higher education, but many students have found it to be one of the toughest.”
Sens. Durbin and Al Franken introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act, a bill for a competitive grant program for higher education institutions to expand the use of free textbooks.
“We live in an era of e-books and discount books through the Internet and unfortunately most students haven’t seen that revolution come to campus,” Durbin says.
Beth Ramey, a senior at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, is working as the state board representative for the Massachusetts PIRG chapter to advocate for more professors to use open textbooks.
“There is a problem in the market now because sometimes students are choosing to not buy the textbook because frankly they can’t even afford it,” Ramey says. “A lot of the rental or digital versions of textbooks are still very expensive.”
Elio DiStaola, the director of public and campus relations for Follett, a company that manages more than 950 campus stores acknowledges the textbook model has been changing.
Although he sees a future for open textbooks, he doesn’t believe they will work for all topics.
“You might get a grant to create some initial content, but once the grant is gone and the content is created, who updates that content?” DiStaola says.
He says he believes certain fields, such as technology and medicine, require frequent updates that the open textbook model may not be able to supply.
“There are materials … that might be more conducive to open source than others, how much is Hamlet going to change?” DiStaola says. “For us it’s making sure that they have options.”
DiStaola says Follett is interested in exploring alternative models to increase access. The company is currently testing a new program with some of their partners. IncludED, which allows students to enroll in classes and order textbooks simultaneously.
When students register for their courses they simultaneously order their textbooks. The goal is to increase access and DiStaola believes costs could go down if every student is ordering.
The digital versions of textbooks are delivered to students through an online learning system before classes start. If the school has opted to use hard copies, they are delivered to their front door.
At Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne more than 200 courses have adopted includED as a pilot program. They’ve opted out of including any print textbooks in their test program.
“The cost is a very important issue so I don’t want to mitigate that point, but what I think is also incredibly important is that students have materials on the first day of class,” says Samantha Birk, associate director for instructional technologies in the Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at the university.
Birk has seen a lot of progress with the program, particularly in the math department.
In the fall of 2011, before the department used IncludED, more than 350 students contacted the publishers with issues related to accessing their course materials online. The instructors reported that in many situations these issues weren’t resolved until the second or third week of class.
One year later, the department began using IncludED. This time, only nine students reported issues accessing their materials and every issue was resolved within 24 hours, according to the university help desk.
“Follett’s includED is really a way for the bookstore and the school to really flip the course materials model on its side,” Distaola says. “How many days are wasted with students not having the materials?”
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