The future, at least in terms of textbooks, has arrived at University of Wisconsin-Stout.
After operating for 122 years — since 1891 — with a textbook rental program, UW-Stout began using electronic textbooks for the first time in a pilot project last fall.
About 200 students in five classes accessed their textbooks via their laptop computers. All undergraduate students at UW-Stout have a laptop as part of the e-Stout program.
This semester, the pilot project has expanded to include more than 1,500 undergraduate and graduate students using e-textbooks in 40 courses.
By 2016 up to 80 percent of UW-Stout courses could be taught using e-texts, according to the e-Text Committee report.
Forrest Schultz, chemistry, is one of the professors taking part in the pilot project and is convinced that the future is now. “I’m not going back (to traditional books). I’m teaching all my classes this semester with e-textbooks,” he said.
Two of Schultz’s students were apprehensive when they learned that his Organic Chemistry course would use an e-text.
“I was uneasy about it at first, but so far it’s been pretty helpful. It’s nice not to have to carry a book to class everyday,” said Emily Nygaard, of Minneapolis, a junior majoring in dietetics.
Trevor Gronning, of Viroqua, a senior applied science major, also wasn’t enthused about using new technology, especially because he didn’t want to spend more time staring at a computer screen. He changed his mind, however, when he saw that the e-text was helping him learn. “If I had a standard textbook I think my grade would be a lot lower,” Gronning said.
What’s to like?
Feedback from students and professors in the pilot project indicates they like e-textbooks because they:
• Let students interact within the texts through highlighting, asking questions and adding notes
• Are searchable for key words or information.
• Let students print notes or other material directly from the text
• Don’t require waiting in line to pick up or drop off, and there are no fines for damages.
• Are more portable. If students and professors have their computer, tablet or cellphone they have their textbook. Students can view the text online or download it so it’s available if the Internet isn’t.
• Let professors customize and edit the text. They can insert homework assignments, links to other material and even links to videos.
• Let professors order specific chapters of a book instead of a whole book.
• Let professors easily access revised editions or change e-texts from year to year.
Another advantage of e-texts is inexpensive, easy access for distance education and online students, a rapidly expanding segment of the student population. UW-Stout spends about $80,000 a year sending traditional texts to those students.
What’s not to like?
A survey of more than 2,000 UW-Stout students found that 56 percent are open to trying e-texts but that 63 percent still would prefer paper to digital texts.
The survey also found that 73 percent of students were opposed to paying more for e-texts.
Switching to e-texts would likely raise student segregated fees, unless other sources of funding are secured, because for the first time in UW-Stout’s history students would be getting their books on the commercial market instead of renting from the university.
Students pay $170 a year to rent textbooks at UW-Stout; students at other universities without rental programs pay $655 a year on average to buy books. With an e-text program, the cost for UW-Stout students would be higher than $170 but still far below $655, a university study showed.
UW-Stout would try to mitigate expenses as much as possible, including using free e-texts, said Bob Butterfield, UW-Stout director of Instructional Resources Service. “As more schools use e-textbooks the cost will come down,” Butterfield said.
UW-Stout has nearly 90,000 books in its textbook library. Many of those books need to be replaced, and the cost of new textbooks has risen dramatically in recent years, averaging about $200 per title.
National, state trends
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the five biggest textbook publishers in the U.S. have invested more than $1 billion in software and technology in the past five years, with the expectation that digital textbooks will take off.
A recent survey by Inside Higher Education found that the percentage of students who prefer traditional texts has dropped significantly the past three years, from 59 percent to 39 percent. Twenty percent of students recently used an e-text, which account for 9 percent of textbook sales.
UW-Stout is exploring e-texts because it appears they will enhance learning and teaching. As Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, UW-Stout is committed to technology-based innovation, according to the e-Text Committee report.
“E-textbooks represent a real educational opportunity. They enable multimedia capabilities,” Schultz said. “I want to be able to shape and customize the material for my classes. With e-texts I can customize as the class goes along.”
Some experts have questioned whether e-texts should even be called textbooks because they operate on software platforms and offer far more than just text.
Schultz serves on a technology committee with the state Department of Public Instruction. He said that an increasing number of K-12 school districts are using e-texts, meaning students will be prepared and may expect to use them when they reach college.
UW-Stout is positioned to broadly and quickly adopt e-texts because of its laptop computer program, the only school in the UW System that has one.
UW-Stout isn’t the only UW System school experimenting with e-texts. Last fall UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee took part in another pilot project. About 800 students at UW-Madison were involved.