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Student Research: Can Googling Replace $168 Intro to Psych Textbook?

Students are taking the battle against high-priced textbooks into their own hands. This week, 11 University of Cincinnati seniors in the psychology program presented at an Educause event a comparison of the content of traditional college texts, one of which costs $168, to content they found for free on the Web.

The research effort was undertaken as part of the Digital Bookshelf Project, the University System of Ohio's effort to make textbooks more affordable.

For the latest research project, which took place in fall 2010, the students compared the value and educational quality of two current textbooks with the draft of a new textbook they found free online, along with what they could find through online search engines. They worked under the guidance of Charles Ginn, an associate professor of psychology at U Cincinnati.

"For our generation raised on the Internet, online searches for class materials often replace purchasing the textbook," said Libby Cates, one of the student researchers. "So, our primary research question was: Can students depend on what they find when they Google key terms? Secondly, we wanted to see what benefits are delivered through textbooks in their various forms."

They found that materials from Wikipedia were accurate and thorough, though "perhaps excessively thorough for an introductory course," they reported. "These summaries were equal to or exceeded those found in the two textbooks."

Students also found that the free e-textbook and lower-cost print materials all provided similar learning support. They recommended a combination of digital and print materials as being most supportive of student learning.

The Digital Bookshelf Project has brought together psychology departments across the state to offer students electronic textbook choices from major publishers. The goal of the project is to work with the publishers and university bookstores to provide students alternatives to standard texts.

The latest research follows on a project that investigated what format students would prefer for their text. For the 2010 academic year, 50,000 of Ohio's 70,000 introductory psychology students have had a low-cost digital option available for the textbook of their instructor's choice.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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