Digital Textbooks, Online Learning Increasingly Popular

College professors take their lesson plans into the digital realm.

PHOENIX, Ariz., Aug. 27, 2009— -- 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, 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.

His company allows students to buy different versions of the text if they want more ways of accessing the material. Students can pay $19.95 for a PDF file, $29.95 for a black and white print version or $59.95 for a color version, or $39.95 for an audio version.

Frank admitted the company is making a lot less money than most publishing companies, but still, he said it's ultimately a smarter way to do business.

According to Frank, four things account for the lure of online textbooks: cost, convenience, enhanced functionality and environmental sustainability.

"Having books stored and accessible in an 'anytime, anywhere' fashion is consistent with peoples' changing lifestyles," Frank said. "Content delivered online holds out great promise for greater learning."

Frank has spent more than 30 years in the textbook publishing industry, working with companies like McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Cengage Learning. He started Flat World Knowledge five months ago because he said he saw a need for online textbooks.

The company is now working with more than 400 colleges and universities to provide free online textbooks, expecting to save students nearly $3 million in textbooks this fall semester alone.

Kindle Arrives in Classrooms

In May, Amazon announced a Kindle pilot program in partnership with six universities across the country for the upcoming fall semester: Arizona State University, Princeton University, Case Western Reserve University, Reed College and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Select classes at each school are able to try out the new device as an alternative to a regular textbook.

Robert Carraway, an associate professor of business administration at the Darden School, said he thinks the Kindle will open the doors to non-traditional and more customizable learning.

"It will make it easier for students to access their materials and therefore prepare properly for class," Carraway said. "You can read in a coffee shop or in the middle of an open field without needing to drag your laptop along."

Megan Thomas, a senior at ASU, touts the benefits of a Kindle but doesn't believe it will cause paper and ink books to go extinct.

"Being able to search for words in a Kindle is a major benefit academically, making it much easier to find specific quotes for a class paper or a term that's going to be on a test," Thomas said. "But I think no matter how digitized our society becomes, we will preserve the older texts."

New Ways to Learn

Earlier this month, the University of Maryland teamed up with Apple and iTunes U, allowing professors to post videos of their lectures online that students can download and watch.

Patricia Shields, a biology professor at the school who has been making lecture videos for her students for the past two and half years, said it's all about customized learning.

"I started to make these videos when I noticed that just lecturing about complex topics such as DNA replication wasn't helping the students really understand the topic," she said.

Shields said the traditional class lecture is still important, but coming up with new ways of helping students understand the material is key.

Teachers Sharpen Their Tech Skills

"As technology becomes less expensive and more user friendly, there will be more of these less traditional ways to help students learn," Shields said.

With a new wave of technology in the classroom, teachers are sharpening their skills in order to stay ahead of the curve. ASU has recently created a new program in education technology that trains teachers to do just that.

"It's designed to help teachers become conversant with the technology that's available in the classroom and allow them to be more critical as consumers of educational technology," said Robert Atkinson, an associate professor of educational technology at ASU.

"We realized there was a need for teachers to learn to create and refine lesson plans around technology," Atkinson said.

Atkinson said that though online textbooks provide a new level of engagement for students with interactive quizzes and links to other sites, he doesn't think they will completely replace traditional textbooks, at least not yet.

"A lot of people embrace technology even before it's been proven effective," Atkinson said. "We have a long way to go in creating effective educational software, so the best thing to do now is to be selective." contributor Maxine Park is a member of the Arizona State University ABC News On Campus bureau.

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