Electronic Textbooks: The Next Campus Fad?

For more than 20 years Dr. Sanford Berg has taught “Managerial Economics,” a required business course at the University of Florida. He will do so again this fall — with one great difference.

“Students will have the choice of using the traditional textbook or downloading an electronic version on their laptops,” Berg said. “The technology is still young, but we feel it’s important to be out front on this kind of thing.”

Econ 101: Electronic Publishing

Most people think of Stephen King’s entry into online publishing when they think of e-books, but many publishers and professors believe college texts are the more promising market. E-texts are cheaper (the cost is comparable to a used book) and easier to update than the paper versions.

And while John Updike has written that nothing can ever replace the aesthetic pleasure of holding a bound paper novel, it’s hard to imagine students feeling the same way about a backpack overloaded with school books.

“I think this is going to happen faster in education than in anywhere else,” said Susan Driscoll, president of Worth Publishers, which this fall will release several textbook titles in electronic form.

“Students do everything on laptops these days, so I definitely think electronic books are a trend that’s going to expand,” said Dr. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who plans on using e-books next year.

Over the next few months, publishers will be meeting with authors, professors and college officials to work out agreements for the upcoming year. This week, WizeUp Digital Textbooks announced that more than 75 titles would be available for this fall, with Harvard, Georgetown and Ohio State among the schools using the books.

“There was some skepticism two years ago, but now teachers are saying, ‘Finally. This is what we’ve been asking for for some time,’” said David Gray, CEO of WizeUp, which expects to triple its electronic offerings by next year.

E-Textbooks to Complement Paper

Few believe e-books will replace paper texts on campus, and issues common to electronic publishing still need to be resolved: royalty payments to authors, the awkwardness of reading a book off a computer screen and making sure students can’t simply download materials to each other.

But the desire for e-textbooks is apparently even stronger than the industry’s ability to produce them. Pinker and other professors say they would be offering the electronic version now if only the books were ready.

“A year ago, I offered the textbook in both formats, but the next time I have the chance I’m going to go the whole hog and just use an electronic text,” said Darryl Poole, an associate professor of sociology at Farmville, Va.-based Longwood College.

Flexibility is the quality professors mention most. While the traditional college textbook is updated once every few years, e-books can be updated every year, or even during the semester. The electronic format also allows for links to newspaper articles and other supplementary texts and for audio and visual aids.

“I was talking to a textbook publisher about having an audio feed attached to a math problem,” said Julie Greenblatt, vice president of business development at Versaware Inc., an e-publisher. “Instead of just having the teacher walk you through the problem, a narrator walks you through and uses visuals to illustrate.”

“The text is no longer frozen on the page,” Berg said. “You click the screen and get a five-minute talk from the president of the Ford Motor Company or read an article about the latest on the Microsoft case.

“E-books will change the way classes are taught because students will have so much more information,” he said. “They make the professor more a guide than a pontificator, which professors should never be anyway. They’re going to put an awful lot of responsibility on the students.”

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