Electronic Textbooks: The Next Campus Fad?

ByHillel Italie

N E W   Y O R K, Aug. 18, 2000 -- For more than 20 years Dr. Sanford Berg hastaught “Managerial Economics,” a required business course at theUniversity of Florida. He will do so again this fall — with onegreat difference.

“Students will have the choice of using the traditionaltextbook or downloading an electronic version on their laptops,”Berg said. “The technology is still young, but we feelit’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 publishingwhen they think of e-books, but many publishers and professorsbelieve college texts are the more promising market. E-texts arecheaper (the cost is comparable to a used book) and easier toupdate than the paper versions.

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

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

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

Over the next few months, publishers will be meeting withauthors, professors and college officials to work out agreementsfor the upcoming year. This week, WizeUp Digital Textbooksannounced that more than 75 titles would be available for thisfall, with Harvard, Georgetown and Ohio State among the schoolsusing the books.

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

E-Textbooks to Complement Paper

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

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

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

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

“I was talking to a textbook publisher about having an audiofeed attached to a math problem,” said Julie Greenblatt, vicepresident of business development at Versaware Inc., ane-publisher. “Instead of just having the teacher walk you throughthe problem, a narrator walks you through and uses visuals toillustrate.”

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

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

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