Can the Kindle and Its Ilk Ease Textbook Inflation?

And are they ready for prime time?

For students entering college this fall, one of their first surprises may be sticker shock—not at tuition, but at the cost of reading materials. Textbook prices have nearly tripled since 1994, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and many students routinely spend as much as $1,000 a year on course reading. First-year students at Columbia this fall will pay as much as $213.75 for Zumdahl’s Chemical Principles or $255.75 for Stewart’s Calculus.

It should come as no surprise, then, that colleges and students alike are eagerly watching the development of e-readers like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad as potential textbook killers. A recent survey by the Student Public Interest Research Groups, a national advocacy group, found that 40 percent of students would consider switching to digital texts.

“Students are still comfortable with textbooks, but they are priced too high,” says Nicole Allen, Student PIRG’s textbooks advocate. Digital texts, she says, hold the promise of relieving students from soaring costs.

That was one goal of a pilot project conducted at Pace University last fall to provide Amazon Kindle DX e-readers to 74 students in four courses: biology, marketing, publishing, and nursing. Pace was one of seven universities nationwide provided with Kindles by Amazon, according to Dr. James Stenerson, executive director of Pace’s Center of Teaching, Learning & Technology and director of the pilot program. Pace continued the pilot with environmental science and nursing classes this spring before ending the year-long program.

Initially, there was a lot of excitement about using digital course materials, Stenerson says. Pace offered the Kindle to students in the selected classes with the appropriate course materials already preloaded on the device. Students had the option to buy the Kindle (at a discounted price) at the end of the course.

By the end of the year, the excitement had waned. “The experiment did not really go well,” says Dr. Karen Berger, associate dean and director of undergraduate programs at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. “Two students bought the [print] textbook within a month of the start of the course.” Student complaints ranged from difficulties in taking notes to clumsy navigation controls. The electronic annotation feature was especially “slow and cumbersome,” she says, requiring students to manipulate a tiny button to underline passages and type notes on the Kindle’s ergonomically unfriendly keyboard.

Berger also feels the textbook used in her class was not as effective on the Kindle as it was in print. The photos, pictures, and diagrams in the e-textbook were all black and white, she says, and the image quality was not quite as sharp as it would have been in print.

Manuela Soares, director of the graduate seminar in Pace’s publishing program, required all 20 of her students to bring the Kindle to class so that she could refer to relevant passages during lectures. Instead, she found time eaten away by technical issues. Kindle books have no page numbers, so it was a challenge to get all the students on the same page. (Each passage has a location number that students can use to directly jump to that section, but typos were common on the small keyboard.) The Kindle also proved sluggish as students scrolled through the text. Like the marketing students in Berger’s course, several of Soares’s students alternated between using the textbook and the e-book throughout the course.

“It’s one thing to read a mystery or novel on the Kindle, but the way you read a textbook is different,” Soares says. “You are flipping back and forth while reading, and navigation was cumbersome, even with bookmarks.”

In Berger’s Managerial Marketing class, an elective marketing course for undergraduates, not one student bought a Kindle for personal use after the semester was done—though four or five bought Kindles to give their parents.

Still, university administrators and professors hope digital textbooks can eventually improve the learning experience by incorporating interactive elements, instructors’ notes, and videos within the text. Reducing the soaring cost of textbooks to students is an additional bonus.

Even in healthier economic times, students routinely scoured the used book markets, rented titles, or checked for international editions on the gray market to avoid paying the full price. With textbooks being the largest student expense after tuition and room and board, those with limited finances or those reeling from the economic downturn may decide not to enroll in certain classes due to cost, notes Student PIRG’s Allen, especially at community colleges where buying textbooks can cost as much as tuition.

In response to complaints about high print prices, major textbook publishers have begun to offer e-textbooks that can be downloaded to a computer or mobile device, or read online. Starting this fall, Macmillan will offer a line of e-textbooks reportedly priced 70 percent less than print books via its DynamicBooks platform; a black-and-white “print-on-demand” version will cost 50 percent of the regular print price. In 2007, six other publishers, including Pearson, John Wiley, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill, created a spin-off called CourseSmart that offers more than 6,000 textbooks that can be read online or downloaded to proprietary reader software.

Still, says Allen, “books are priced too high on CourseSmart despite cutting out the production costs.” CourseSmart texts aren’t significantly cheaper than used prices: Zumdahl’s chemistry text, for example, is listed for $149.63 on CourseSmart, a 43 percent savings, while a used copy is available at the college bookstore for $160.30.

Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of open-source textbooks, offers another model, providing students online access to the entire textbook—for free. Currently focused on the business curriculum, Flat World’s textbooks will be in use by more than 90,000 students at 1,200 schools this fall. The titles are available under a Creative Commons license; students pay for alternative formats. Students can choose to print the text in black and white ($30) or color ($60), or buy it in Braille or DAISY, or as an audiobook ($39.95, or $2.99 per chapter).

At Cerritos College, a two-year institution serving southeastern Los Angeles County, the business administration department incorporated Flat World texts in all its core classes and in a six-week distance learning course for retail managers. According to Linda Lacy, Cerritos’ president, the result was an improvement in GPA and retention rates. Based on professor and student feedback, Cerritos has decided to make open textbooks a permanent part of the department.

E-books from traditional publishers are “irrationally priced,” says Flat World founder Eric Frank. Many of these texts also restrict students from printing more than 10 pages, forcing them to pay the print-on-demand prices. And while printed books are expensive, students can expect to sell them back to recoup some of their losses. Most e-books from traditional publishers will automatically get deleted 180 days after the course ends: There goes the money.

Despite their disappointing experience last year, Pace professors remain cautiously optimistic about digital textbooks. And for her part, Allen hopes that e-books will become more useful as additional publishers incorporate options now offered by Pearson and Flat World, such as giving professors the ability to reorder chapters, delete material from the text, embed video and audio clips to enhance the text, or add explanatory notes and external references. “Currently, textbooks out there are pretty lame,” she says. “They are just PDF files.”

For now, publishers are not committing to any single e-reader or file format—especially since, as Stenerson notes, “the iPad turned the e-reader business into chaos.” And Bowker’s PubTrack Consumer statistics indicate that students are still more likely, at 42 percent, to read e-books (textbooks included) on a laptop or computer than on dedicated e-readers or mobile devices.

And even if e-textbooks do catch on, that won’t necessarily mean the end of printed texts. “Free online is nice to have,” says Flat World spokesperson Carole Walters. “But students want something in hand.”

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