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E-Textbook Pilot Grows to 25 Schools Even as U Minn Opts Out

An e-textbook pilot run at five institutions after being tested out at Indiana University will be growing this fall. Twenty-one additional colleges and universities of multiple sizes and formats will be introducing the use of digital content in classes in a series of pilot efforts being conducted by Educause and Internet2. Eventually, up to 50 schools may participate. Preliminary results of the tests will be shared during the Fall 2012 Internet2 Member Meeting starting Sept. 30 and the Educause 2012 Annual Conference in November.

However, at least one of the universities involved in the original pilot has chosen to step away from the scaled up version of the test owing to concerns over accessibility issues with the e-textbook platform.

The newest pilot involves replacing individual purchases by students with site licenses negotiated and funded by campuses; in specific courses, printed textbooks will be replaced with electronic materials; and the e-readers used won't be associated with a specific publisher.

Students in participating courses will use McGraw-Hill Education e-textbooks and digital learning material selected by faculty. They'll also be outfitted with the vendor-neutral Courseload reader and annotation software, which allows content to be delivered directly through their school's existing learning management system (LMS) and made viewable on multiple types of devices. Students who want a printed copy will be able to print portions of the e-textbooks directly or order a print-on-demand version of them for a fee. A benefit of participating is that the students won't be paying for the texts; the institutions involved will be subsidizing the study.

The primary goal of the pilot is to give campuses a taste of how the use of digital textbooks will affect the purchase, distribution, and use of the course material. Along the way, participants will be able to evaluate the appeal and pedagogical benefits for faculty and students. They'll also be able to assess how scalable the approach is, how easily course materials can be integrated with campus learning management systems, and how the new model supports increased value and lower costs of educational materials.

This initiative expands on an earlier test performed at the University of California, Berkeley, Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a pioneering earlier effort at Indiana University. In that set of tests faculty were chosen based on their personal interest in the project, the use they made of McGraw‐Hill texts, the types of courses, the enrollment sizes, their willingness to participate in a pilot research study, and the diversity of disciplines they represented.

According to a research report put out in August to share the outcomes of that five-institution experiment, the most important consideration for students considering the purchase of an e-textbook was its cost. Also vital: the portability of the e-textbook, the ability to access the materials without an Internet connection, and the availability of the materials beyond a single semester. Only 12 percent of students chose to purchase a paper copy of their course materials. Multiple students declared that the text was difficult to read on a computing device; and a number of them referenced a lack of native functionality on tablets, such as the iPad.

For their part, faculty cited a lack of training for not taking advantage of features such as note sharing, tracking student usage, or including additional links. And, because faculty didn't use those enhanced features, the report stated, "students saw little benefit from the e-text platform's capability of promoting collaboration with other students or with the professor."

Future efforts, the report added, need to ensure that e-textbooks are accessible to students with special needs and others requiring special accommodation.

"More and more universities are eager to explore new approaches to delivering content to students. These pilot programs offer an alternative to the legacy textbook model to which students and campuses are anxious to find alternatives as e-texts become mainstream," said Shel Waggener, senior vice president of Internet2 and former chief information officer at UC Berkeley. "We continue to invite other publishers and e-reader platform providers to join our efforts to explore new models for improving the delivery and use of electronic content so that everyone benefits."

Although the University of Minnesota is continuing its experiment with digital textbooks, it has declined to participate in the latest pilot program, citing concerns with the accessibility aspects of the current Courseload platform.

The university's office of Disability Services held a separate study to determine how accommodating the e-textbook reader was for users with impairments. According to the office, the book tested with Courseload was rendered into a PDF that used graphic images of pages rather than text, suggesting, the testers said, "that all e-text publications will be displayed in the same inaccessible manner in the Courseload application." The problem with contents of a book being presented as an image is that it's not usable by most adaptive technology. For example, depending on what tools they're using, students can't add notes or target locations within the text.

Students with disabilities enrolled in a course using Courseload were supplied with a free print edition of the e-textbook, which was then converted by an optical character reader and imported into other reading tools.

The accessibility issues were severe enough, the university team wrote, that they could put the institution at risk for litigation. "We cannot support the adoption of an application or system that allows instant access to course materials for all but those with disabilities."

As of Sept. 4, 2012, along with four of the original participants, new participants in the latest round of pilots include:

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