Arizona State Class Ditches Textbooks for Kindle

By Virginia Breen

Jun 3, 2009 2:53pm

  ABC News On Campus reporter Toby Phillips blogs: 

It’s no secret that technology is transforming college campuses. Laptops are quickly outnumbering traditional notebooks in lecture halls, and entire courses and degrees are taught online.

So, what if we could get around yet another university staple: the textbook itself?

What may be the beginning of the end of paper textbooks hits campus this fall at Arizona State University and four other colleges around the country. The Amazon Kindle is a wireless, electronic reading machine that lets readers download books, magazines or newspapers straight into the palm of their hand. One group of honors students at ASU will have the Kindle DX version, in their hands, come the start of classes.

Dr. Ted Humphrey spearheaded the effort to get Kindles into classrooms. Humphrey teaches “The Human Event,” an introductory class in Barrett, The Honors College. He took a trip to Ecuador with a group of students and said his personal Kindle quickly became a useful device to avoid lugging loads of books across continents.

“One of the things we want to find out is whether it’s going to be useful in the classroom setting,” he said. “We don’t know.” Humphrey listed his favorite things about the Kindle:  “You can make notes after you’ve done your reading. There’s a separate storage space for your notes and bookmarks. I think that will be really useful.”

So he wrote up a proposal to Amazon, and ASU was selected as a pilot campus.

“So far students have reacted very, very well,” Humphrey said. Once word got out that Humphrey would be using the Kindles in his classes, he said they quickly filled.


“All of a sudden, we announced the Kindle project, and my morning class was full,” he said. “Just like that.”

Amazon will foot part of the bill for the gadgets while the university will cover the rest. Whether the students will have to chip in for the Kindles has yet to be decided. The Kindle version used in Humphrey’s classes retails for just under $500. That may seem steep, but Humphrey argued that the Kindles would eventually pay for themselves.

“Long term – the Kindle stands to reduce the cost of books,” Humphrey said. The cost of a typical textbook, now, can range anywhere from $5 to $200 dollars. So when students are enrolled in five or more classes a semester, potential book costs are staggering. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, College textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of annual inflation over the last two decades. The average estimated cost of books per full-time student for in the 2003-2004 academic year was $898, the report noted.

In theory, the Kindle would be a one-time purchase that would save money because downloading a book is expected to cost much less than buying the paper version.

Electronic books are also easier on the environment than all those textbooks with thousands of paper pages. “One of my main commitments to electronic media is simply a function of friendliness to the environment,”  Humphrey said.

The concept sounds simple enough, right? Use an electronic book. Save paper. Keep up with the times, and get rid of those heavy textbooks.

But campus bookstores make money off buying and reselling used textbooks. So having students bypass the bookstore and just download their materials could cut into profits somewhere. But the ASU Bookstore isn’t worried — yet.

“We aren’t sure about the pricing model of this pilot or the possible pricing model down the road,” said Rob Meyers, assistant director of ASU Bookstores. He said it’s a little too early to know how the money is going to work.

“Not knowing the particulars of pricing on these digital books, it’s difficult to take a guess on the impact it would have on us,” Meyers said. “There are costs associated with paper books that obviously wouldn’t be there with digital books.  So, depending on the digital margin, the end result could be very similar (to that of traditional textbooks).”

The real test, though, is whether college kids will even use the gadgets in the bulk of their classes.

Bruce Ficklin, 21, said he likes the idea of textbooks going high-tech. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It would definitely be a lot more convenient, especially when I’m doing homework at work.”

But not everyone is sold on the concept, or the gadget.  Electrical engineering major Yating Jing, 23, said that she likes the look and feel of a traditional book.

“I prefer to make notes and write down something,” she said.  “I like to lie down in bed and read a novel. I enjoy turning the pages.”

Post-graduate student Erik Heitman, 26, added, “It seems like it’s a good advance in technology, but for me personally, using computers and laptops, it’s not very good on your eyes.”

Heitman also admitted an attachment to his backpack. “It’s kind of old school to have a book bag and everything,” he said.

Overwhelmingly, though, students sounded eager to lighten their loads and maybe to save some money in the process.

“I think it’s great. I usually spend about $1,000 a year on textbooks,” said Dan Dezelles, 21, a kinesiology major.  “Most of them you can’t even bring to class. You pay so much for them, but they’re too heavy to bring with you.”

The Kindle, he added, “does everything: saves money. It’s easy to bring around. I like it.”

In order for the Kindle to be adopted university-wide, Humphrey said, many more professors need to get on board. Textbook publishers need to figure out how to convert books to work on a Kindle, and adopt a sustainable business model for downloading textbooks.

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