Northwest Missouri State President Dean Hubbard (left), Paul Klute and Jon Rickman have high hopes for e-textbooks on campus.

Mar 03 2009

Textbooks vs. E-Books: Why This University is Switching to Electronic Reading

Northwest Missouri State University makes an ambitious effort to replace its hefty print textbooks with electronic courseware.

Northwest Missouri State University makes an ambitious effort to replace its hefty print textbooks with electronic courseware.

For years, Northwest Missouri State University took an innovative approach to distributing instructional materials to its students. Most schools rely on a blend of on- and off-campus bookstores to outfit students with new hefty textbooks that sometimes cost hundreds of dollars per semester. By contrast, the Maryville, Mo., university launched its long-term textbook rental program in 1905; it currently charges students a flat fee of $6 per credit hour to rent a textbook for the semester. The trailblazing university was also one of the first to offer online courses back in 1995.

Now, the university hopes to further lighten the financial load for its students by piloting an e-textbook program. As part of the school’s ambitious plan to implement e-books throughout its curriculum over the next two years, it is running a pilot with 500 of its 6,500 students in 10 different courses. The university already supplies each of its students with a notebook computer. By adding e-textbooks, the university wants not only to help students financially, but also to broaden the amount of course material to which they have access.

“We have to be the driver, the facilitator of these changes,” says President Dean L. Hubbard. “E-textbooks are just a natural next step for Northwest Missouri State to provide a more interactive educational experience.”

Pilot First

The university began the initial phase of the pilot last fall, testing Sony’s PRS-505/SC Reader Digital Book with a group of about 250 students. But feedback indicated some concerns, as students could not flip through the e-books to look for keywords, charts and graphs. “Also, students couldn’t highlight and make annotations, nor could they search for a key term or phrase,” says Paul Klute, assistant to the president.

The current phase of the pilot tackles these issues head-on. In addition to the e-books the university purchased for the 500-student pilot group, the school worked out a deal with McGraw-Hill to provide digital access codes to as many as 4,000 students to give them the option of using textbooks in both print and digital formats, says Jon Rickman, vice president of information systems at the university. Another 20 students are testing Sony’s new PRS-700BC Reader, which offers enhanced functionality over its predecessors, he adds. Among the courses offered on e-books are Introduction to Philosophy and Intercultural Communications.

“We are encouraged by the significant interest the Reader has generated in the education environment and believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Cesar Guerrero, business development manager for Sony’s Digital Reading Business Division. “Pilots such as this one at Northwest Missouri State demonstrate the unique value interactive digital reading can provide students beyond traditional print books.”

Students are now able to highlight text, add electronic sticky notes, insert and extract chapters, and add pop quizzes using their notebooks, says Hubbard. “We think this has enormous potential to improve the quality of instruction.”

The program dovetailed nicely with the university’s purchase of 5,500 new Hewlett-Packard 6515 notebooks for its students in the fall. Although it’s using HP notebooks this year, the university is still brand-agnostic, Klute says.

Northwest Missouri State purchases notebooks for its entire student body and rents them out for $300 a year by including the cost as part of tuition.

SOURCE: Jon Rickman, Northwest Missouri State’s Vice President of Information Systems

Hubbard says he fully expected tech-savvy students to clamor for the e-books, but he wasn’t so sure about more conventional faculty members who are accustomed to using traditional print materials in their instruction. But he was pleasantly surprised, he says, when 54 of the school’s 261 faculty members “demanded” that e-readers be adopted by their respective departments last fall. More than half of the university’s instructors requested e-books for the spring semester, he says.

The price point doesn’t hurt, either. The university spends about $800,000 each year to refresh a portion of its 40,000 textbooks under its nonprofit business model, says Hubbard. According to industry statistics, roughly 60 percent of the costs for publishers to produce textbooks is in paper, print, binding and storage, he says.

“Our expectations are that the printed textbook will increase in cost in the future and we think we will be able to save 40 to 60 percent by going electronic,” says Klute. “Our intent is to become the first campus to fully use electronic textbooks for the entire campus community. We hope to be the first comprehensive program in the country.”

But the university’s motivation wasn’t just a desire to reduce costs for students (not to mention the weight in their backpacks). Klute and his colleagues wanted to determine what made the university an attractive choice for prospective students. The book rental and e-campus options were important, says Klute, but the university wanted to leverage those valuable assets by offering students even more.

“What we found was that many students who enrolled in on-campus classes are taking them online as well, because the course time for the physical class might not necessarily coincide with work or their athletic schedule,” Klute concludes.

E-Books Hit U.K.

Northwest Missouri State University’s e-textbook efforts have generated interest from across the pond. Over the past several months, officials from the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, England, visited the campus to learn more about the university’s experiences with e-books and e-reader technology. The Department of Computing for the British university is planning to launch a similar pilot for its nearly 400 undergraduate and graduate students and faculty beginning this summer, says Dr. Kevin Hapeshi, head of the university’s computing department.

<p>Scott Sinkler</p>