Digital Textbooks, Online Learning Increasingly Popular

In colleges across the country online textbooks are inching their way to the top of the class, while paper and ink textbooks are quickly becoming "old school."

"Books are getting bigger and costs are going up," said Dale Baker, an education professor at Arizona State University. "Technology is so wonderful and you can post everything online and take readings from a variety of different sources. Often times there are things in textbooks that have nothing to do with the course, so it can be really wasteful."

Republishing Instantaneously

Bob Stewart, an oceanography professor at Texas A&M University, opted to publish his class textbook through an online "open book" rather than the traditional way. Now, his entire book appears as text online and can be viewed as HTML or downloaded as a PDF file.

"Online textbooks are useful because they are timely," Stewart said. "The subject of oceanography is rapidly changing and I can upgrade the book in minutes if need be."

Stewart said all he has to do is make the changes, upload a new version to the Web and the book is officially edited, instead of having to wait a few years to republish the text.

"Being able to make corrections rapidly makes online distribution far more efficient," Stewart said.

Students from China and other parts of the world have accessed Stewart's online textbooks, all for free. Stewart said he doesn't make any money off of posting his books online.

"Most professors are paid to write books, usually by state or federal governments," Stewart said. "So in a sense, students and their parents have already paid for the books. Why charge them twice? I'm saving my students about $80 to $130 per book and I get feedback from other professors pointing out errors or ambiguous text."

Cheap Online Books Force Publishers to Offer Incentives

Openeducation.net, a blog about new issues affecting educators, reports a growing number of professors are placing their own textbooks online in response to the rising cost of books.

Baker said she believes it's the beginning of a grassroots movement.

"I think there is a trend because it cuts costs for students and professors can customize what their students read to fit the goals of the course," Baker said. "So technology is letting people use different sources of info beyond what a book would allow you to do."

According to the National Association of College Stores, students spend an average of $375 on required course materials each semester.

The expense of hardback books and growing pressure from the proliferation of online textbooks have led some publishing companies to find new ways to survive.

Textbook publishing giant Cengage Learning announced earlier this month that it will start renting textbooks to college students this year, at 40 percent to 70 percent of the sale price. Students who rent a book will receive the first chapter of the book electronically. After the rental term, students can either return the book or buy it.

Barnes & Noble College Booksellers is also starting a rental program at three of its 624 college bookstores for the 2009 fall semester.

Customizing Your Textbook

Eric Frank, the founder of Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of online textbooks, said he doesn't believe the traditional textbook will become obsolete. Instead, he says, education materials will simply become more diverse.

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