Smart Classroom Profile

Embracing Electronic Textbooks

Beyond the money-saving feature for students, electronic textbooks offer another benefit: They can be more convenient for professors, who can easily review a new textbook online, then make a quick decision to include it in a course.

Don St. Dennis, an associate professor of communications at St. Mary's University of Minnesota who teaches a variety of MBA classes around communications themes--as well as an undergraduate business writing class this semester--has been offering his graduate students an e-textbook option for several years. Gradually, he said, more and more students are taking advantage of that option.

The digital texts are offered through CourseSmart, an electronic textbook company founded in 2007 that has a joint venture with five publishers and distributes e-books for a dozen more. (The company was founded by higher education textbook publishers Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons Inc., and the Bedford, Freeman, Worth Publishing Group.) It now offers more than 7,000 titles across many disciplines. According to the company, it now offers digital versions of over a third of the most popular college textbook titles.

St. Dennis said that all of the titles he is currently using in his courses are available through CourseSmart.

The benefits of digital texts, St. Dennis said, include both savings for students and the added convenience for him. "As a faculty member, if you're looking at several different texts, you can get instant access [from CourseSmart]," he said. "In about an hour, you can look at a handful of relevant textbooks, including new editions just coming out." If he's suddenly asked to teach a new course, he said, he can avoid the time-consuming process of ordering textbooks by mail, then waiting until they arrive to review them and decide which he might use for a course.

While opinions vary on just how solid a value a digital textbook is for the average student, St. Dennis said he e-mails his students a price comparison of paper and electronic textbooks each semester when he offers the e-textbook option, and finds a general savings of at least 40 percent, sometimes more. "I've been sensitive to the cost of textbooks for a long time for my students," he added.

As an example, St. Dennis said that a textbook by Scott Ober called Contemporary Business Education, which he uses in one of his courses, is $139 in the St. Mary's University bookstore, or $65 from CourseSmart.

Of course, students cannot resell digital texts at the end of the course, as can be done with many paper textbooks, assuming they are still current. In fact, in a model that is common with electronic texts, the fee paid to CourseSmart for a digital book doesn't actually purchase the e-book--instead, it functions more as a subscription, a CourseSmart representative explained. Access to the book ends after a set period, usually the semester end. (CourseSmart said it offers options that are longer than a semester to accommodate longer courses.)

Has there been a downside for St. Dennis? He said initially he found the concept of e-books interesting but was unwilling to give up the physical presence of books. A former public relations executive who left the private sector "to give something back to the community," he said that gradually he's "... become less and less enamored with [paper] books.... I've become more adept at using [electronic texts] online." He now uses an Amazon Kindle and does most of his reading and editing at a computer.

He said he suspects his students have been going through that same evolution in the several years he's been offering CourseSmart texts. "Students were interested initially and liked the lower cost, but they still liked referring to textbooks." Now, the electronic text option is gradually becoming more popular.

CourseSmart uses a proprietary interface for its textbooks in which each electronic page corresponds exactly to the physical page in the paper textbook. That makes it easy for students using paper books to stay in synch with students flipping through digital pages on their laptops.

The CourseSmart interface also includes features such as a hyperlinked table of contents, search, copy and paste, a student notes section, and the ability to highlight text in yellow or add "sticky notes." In purchasing the e-text, a student can choose to download the entire text to a device such as a laptop for use, or can opt to access the text online over the Internet. In either case, the e-text subscription expires at a set time, along with access. There is no difference in pricing for the online and downloadable versions; both are also available via an iPhone application as well.

At least some of the e-textbooks from CourseSmart also include multimedia features, St. Dennis said, such as short, YouTube-style videos. The videos are useful, he said, to help break up the long, four-hour evening classes that are common for his courses.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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