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E-Textbooks: 4 Keys to Going All-Digital

When Daytona State College, a 53-year-old former community college in Florida, now a state college offering a four year degree, set out to implement an all-electronic book program two years ago, its goal was to drive down the cost of textbooks by 80 percent. The school is well on its way to achieving that goal, and along the way it made some discoveries about what it takes to make a successful transition to e-texts.

"We got it going in the right direction," said Rand Spiwak, CEO of eText Consult and Daytona State's recently retired CFO, who led the school's e-text project. "But we had to adjust our expectations and assumptions considerably."

Spiwak partnered with John Ittelson, professor emeritus at California State University, Monterey Bay, and director of communication, collaboration, and outreach for the California Virtual Campus, to share their experiences implementing e-textbook programs with attendees at the annual Campus Technology 2011 conference in Boston last week. They discussed strategies for evaluating the benefits and cost savings of e-texts over paper textbooks, as well as some basic information attendees would need to pursue e-text implementations at their institutions.

Before starting his own consulting practice, Spiwak spearheaded the Daytona's e-text Project, which set out to replace traditional textbooks with digital alternatives, including e-textbooks and open content, for the entire school. He shared his experiences with conference attendees, and a list of essentials for any institution considering a transition to e-texts.

"We found at the end that our initial idea was very different from where we needed to be to make this thing work," Spiwak said. "We thought we'd have one device, deal with one publisher--every one of those early ideas were a mistake."

What do you need to implement a successful e-text program?

Start with a cross-platform e-reader software that will run on any device, Spiwak said.

"If the way our students read their e-text was based on where they bought the book, proprietary from a publisher or to the device, it would have been like asking them to manage five e-mail systems," he said. "It just wouldn't have worked. You want e-reader software that will run on any device, that will work with any publisher, both proprietary content and open content, and we found it best go with a third-party to provide that service. Agnostic of hardware. Very different from where we were two years ago."

Daytona also came to the conclusion that a successful e-text program would have to embrace technology integration.

"We wanted to make sure that, whatever happened with the tech, the student was left hanging with an e-book that he or she could no longer read," Spiwak said. "We wanted something that was open enough that, when changes in technology took place, the student could take advantage of it, or stick with what they had. We didn't want it to be like the slide rule users going to calculators, complete replacement all at once."

Daytona also abandoned its initial assumption that all of its 1,600 full-time and part-time faculty and 40,000 students would make the transition to e-text simultaneously Aug. 15, 2012. "It's doesn't work that way," he said. "Even though we had a faculty that was very interested in making this work, we figured out that you do it like you eat an elephant: one bite at a time."

Daytona rolled out its e-text program first with a small group of "pioneers," faculty who actually approached the administration to volunteer. The students in those classes knew in advance that they would 100 percent digital. That group of faculty then mentored other faculty members who wanted to make the transition. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the Daytona State faculty came into the program per semester, strictly on a volunteer basis.

"We decided not to shove this down anyone's throat," Spiwak said. "When students saw their textbook costs drop, they demanded it, and faculty responded."

Daytona also found that, by guaranteeing publishers 100 percent sellthrough--that is, all students in a class would be required to pay for the text for that class upfront, something like paying a lab fee--the school had enough leverage to get the cost of the e-texts down by at least 60 percent, far less than rentals or even used texts.

"The publishers liked that idea," Spiwak said. "A lot."

"Many of our [community] college transfer students were spending more for textbooks--new, used, and rental; any combination--than they were spending on tuition," Spiwak concluded. "That's pathetic, and we knew we had to solve that problem.... By bringing the cost down of textbooks, we have really opened the door to many adults to higher education who might not have come at all. Our enrollment, with nearly the same head count, our FDT grew almost 20 percent. Because students were completing more classes, our retention rate in some developmental classes went from a miserable under 50 percent to a very positive 83 percent. Not many schools retain that many students from semester to semester, especial in college prep classes."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Palo Alto, CA.

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