E-Learning Trends | Research

Some Undergrads Skipping Textbook Buying

Seven out of 10 undergraduate students attending the University of California, Riverside don't buy textbooks, preferring to rent them, rely on instructor-provided materials, or go without. According to a recent "Undergraduate Experience Survey," run annually, 73 percent of respondents reported postponing the purchase, and 74 percent chose to skip buying them altogether. Those counts are similar to results from a 2010 survey.

"I commissioned a report on these surveys because I wanted the faculty to be aware that the students' behavior with respect to textbook purchases may be different than they think," noted Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Steven Brint, who sponsored the surveys. "It is important for faculty to do what they can to make sure that textbooks are available to all students."

The economic downturn may be part of the reason why there's less book buying going on, but not the entire reason, he added. "Many instructors are putting course materials on their iLearn sites." iLearn is the name for the university's Blackboard Learn implementation.

"Others have made a sufficient number of copies of books available on library reserve. These changes may reduce the sense among students that textbooks purchases are necessary," Brint explained. "But undoubtedly these purchase decisions can also be affected by students' sensitivity to costs."

Ultimately, said Brint, the survey results suggest that not all students are doing the required reading for their courses. "As instructors, we need to think about how to make course materials available to our students. But at the end of the day reading is essential to learning. Instructors should continue to assess whether students are reading assigned materials. They can do so through quizzes and exams which require students to discuss reading materials. Those who are not currently making these assessments really should be making them."

Student caution about money also surfaced in other areas. For example, the 2011 survey showed that two-thirds of students postponed buying school supplies; nearly as many skipped buying them. Eighty one percent reported spending less money on food, and 83 percent went out with friends less often.

The university has introduced two programs to help students get the books they need for class without paying full price. First, the campus bookstore runs a textbook rental program through BookRenter.com, which can cut about half off the expense of buying a new book.

Second, the bookstore runs its own marketplace, called R'Books, which allows students to post the books they want to buy and sell on an in-house Craigslist-type site. "We saw that there were a lot of students who were buying and selling on Amazon and Craigslist, so we created R'Books," said Associate Vice Chancellor Danny Kim. "The idea with R'Books was to cut out the middle man--and therefore additional costs--and allow students to buy, sell, and trade books themselves."

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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