Textbooks Enter the Digital Era

The basic introductory physics textbook for college students has remained largely the same for the past century, perhaps longer. So why then, wondered Northeastern University student Jason Turgeon, did his freshman physics course require him to buy a brand-new textbook for about $160, even though he'd used one with similar material in high school? Then, one semester, he shared books, found stuff online, and got the cost for all classes that term down to $35, recalls Turgeon, now a senior. That book bill otherwise would have been $500. After hearing other students echo his frustration, Turgeon in January 2005 started textbookrevolution.org, which links visitors to a variety of free college-level, digital textbooks on the Web.

Textbooks, those all-too-familiar expensive backpack burdens, are no longer dominating the classroom experience as they did for decades. When computers moved into education, textbook publishers started to add digital tools-video clips, interactive lessons, databases-to disks packaged with the books. That drove up prices, and students and professors in response turned to the Internet to look for the best bargains. What they're increasingly finding out now is that-thanks to the accessibility of cyberteaching tools on the Web-maybe they don't need that old-fashioned textbook at all.

Granted, reports of the textbook's complete demise, as Mark Twain might fittingly acknowledge, would be an exaggeration. There are thousands of traditional textbooks published every year, enough to make it a $6.5 billion-a-year business in the 2004-05 academic year, says the National Association of College Stores. But there are good reasons to look beyond that traditional tome. The cost of the average college textbook increased 186 percent between 1986 and 2004, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. Those costs, according to the GAO, were best explained by the expenses of developing and bundling additional materials like CDs, DVDs, and websites that supplement the traditional pages.

The net result for students is that their book bill now averages about $900 a year and can be even more costly for those enrolled in courses like sciences or art history, which use required reading that is particularly expensive to produce. "Lots of material gets added because the publishers want to serve as many people as possible," says Angelica Stacy, a chemistry professor at the University of California-Berkeley. What's more, she says, "You end up with huge books that you can't get through in a course."

Critics also charge that by bundling disks, workbooks, and website access into a textbook, companies are changing the equation for textbook resellers. "Publishers are doing everything they can to undermine the used-book market," says Ava Hegedus, former national affordable-textbooks coordinator for the student Public Interest Research Groups. Once opened, the bundled resources, like course DVDs, can't be resold.

State to state. So students are turning to the Internet for options. There are, of course, a host of sites for new and used books, from eBay's shopping site, Half.com, to independent outfits like varsitybooks.com and ecampus.com. But despite the ease of use of these sites, their business is only a fraction of the total textbook market. A 2006 report by the NACS found that 23 percent of students buy their books online and of those online sales, a third are from the websites of existing campus bookstores. Seventeen states, such as Virginia and Connecticut, have recently proposed legislation to help curb the rising costs of books, including the requirement that schools post the international barcode number of each of the required texts so that students can comparison-shop online. The new Connecticut law also would require publishers to tell professors what the books cost before the professors assign their students tbuy them.

Such attempts to curb the costs of printed textbooks are admirable, but innovative companies, faculty members, and students are exploring digital detours that eliminate the book altogether while enhancing the learning process. For example, Tom Doran helped found Freeload Press (textbookmedia.com). The venture, run by former textbook publishers, provides students with downloads of free E-textbooks and study guides in courses such as business, math, and computer applications. The downloaded "books" are subsidized by advertising from companies like Kinko's and Pure Vida Coffee that appears on the digital pages. (Freeload Press does not run ads from liquor or tobacco companies.) "With the broadband on campus, the time was right to do free E-books," Doran says. And ad-free paperback copies of Freeload textbooks can be ordered for $35, still a significant markdown on the triple-digit price tag of similar books.

Universities, in turn, are offering their own textbook innovations. Pomona College hosts a student-run book-swapping website. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point offers a textbook rental service for undergraduates and some grad students. The school buys the books, which students rent for about $65 a semester. And some instructors have taken more dramatic steps. Richard McCray, a retired professor of astronomy at the University of Colorado, became so fed up with the staggering cost of printed books that he and his colleagues wrote their own online texts. "I want students to learn the skills of finding information and discriminating between good and bad information," he says. "They are going to use the Web anyway; you want to teach them to use it in a discriminating way."

Across the board, instructors and publishers are looking beyond the book with the assumption that technology already has altered the way that students are learning. "Just look at Encarta," says Bruce Jacobsen, who spent almost a decade as an executive at Microsoft before founding an electronic textbook publishing house called Kinetic Books. "When [Encarta] came on the scene with instant searching, it was game over for the traditional print encyclopedia that had been standard for centuries."

Electronic texts, like the Kinetic Books' $40 Principles of Physics CD-ROM, look remarkably like the traditional textbooks, only students read them on a computer screen. They are an improvement over the traditional model in that they can include videos and simulations for the static images on the printed page. The chapter on acceleration, for example, has animated races between a tortoise and a hare, illustrating the principle. Jacobsen argues that the latest generations of E-books do more than merely electronically post the text of an existing book; they create a new model for teaching the material.

Generation text. The educational appeal of these digital textbooks-that they incorporate diverse tools into a single volume-also is confirming for some professors that it could be time to move away from the idea of a central course text altogether. Prof. Diane Ebert-May, who teaches plant biology at Michigan State University, says she hasn't used textbooks in her classroom for years-not even for majors. Instead, her students get a series of readings that address different topics. "Biology changes so rapidly that most of the readings in my class are not much older than 2004," she says. As for textbooks, she has some complimentary titles from publishers and keeps them on her classroom shelves for reference.

As the publishing landscape changes, academics are already thinking ahead to the next generation of print textbooks. A group of 50 leading teachers, technologists, and scientists studied the problem for the National Academy of Sciences last summer. They concluded that the next texts will look more like guidebooks travelers use to explore new cities than textbooks. They predicted that tey will be far slimmer, customizable, and more challenging than their current incarnations. McCray, who contributed to the report, says that textbooks of the future will more likely point out interesting sights along the way, rather than drown the reader in monotonous detail."When you go to Egypt, you take along a Lonely Planet guide, not the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt." And that'll be a relief for many aching backs on campus.

By Alex Kingsbury and Lindsey Galloway