An all etextbook college program? I’m skeptical.

My first reaction when hearing about the first all-digital textbook degree program at the UT Rio Grande Valley was “that sounds like a great thing for the students”.  But then I got to thinking about it, and now I’m not so sure.  There are three problematic areas of an all etextbook program: cost, usage, and access.

Cost

My initial reaction assumed that this would result in cheaper textbooks for the students.  After all, digital is often cheaper that print, right?  Yes, a quick look at popular textbooks on amazon shows etextbooks are typically about 20%-25% cheaper than their print counterparts (though still pricey at something like $140 vs $180).  Plus, the UT program confirms that this should save their students money.  However, two elements of this are worrisome:

  1. With digital there is no secondary market.  If students’ only option is digital, they lose the ability to buy used copies that would save them money. The same “cheaper” etextbooks on Amazon that cost $140 can be purchased for less than $100, even for a new edition (and older editions can be had for pennies).  Also, with no secondary market, students can’t sell their texts back preventing them from recouping any costs.
  2. It creates an environment for publishers to raise prices.  With students locked-in to automatically buying the ebook format, why wouldn’t publishers raise the price for etexts?  Textbooks are already like a monopoly, but having an all electronic program limits the market even further. On top of that, as it’s being implemented at UT, the cost of the etextbooks are initially billed through the department in order to have everything preloaded onto iPads for the students, then billed to the students in the form of program fee.  So publishers are selling directly to institutions and students will have zero choice as to what textbook they buy and who they buy it from.  In that environment, you can only expect the cost of the textbooks to go up.

Usage

Numerous studies show that students still strongly prefer print textbooks.  In some cases the preference is so strong, students will buy texts in print even after being given etexts for free.  There are many reason to prefer print to digital, which I won’t get into here (check out the link to the studies if you’re curious), but the format itself is not a beneficial aspect an all etextbook program – in fact, it’s giving students what they don’t want.

Access

As mentioned above, at UT the etextbooks are being delivered to students via a preloaded iPad.  It is certainly convenient for students to have their texts preloaded, but I have to assume that they are accompanied by a certain level of digital rights management.  It doesn’t seem likely that publishers would allow students to freely transfer and/or share their textbooks.  Can students access the text on any of their electronic devices?  Can they print the text without any limits?  Can they share parts or all of the text with others?  Do they need special software to authenticate and/or view the text?  I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s unlikely that the answer to all these is “yes”.

After thinking through some of these issues, what initially seems like an attractive, high-tech program becomes eliminating low-cost options and restricting usage in order to give students what they don’t want.

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