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Digital texts could turn page on print costs
Class is back in session and for students across the country, it is time to crack the books -- while they're still there.
The shift from paper to digital textbooks is gathering speed in the face of pressure from families and cash-strapped school systems, both of which are struggling with the cost of traditional textbooks in a down economy.
Booksellers say they see a palpable backlash against the cost of paper books, which quickly go out of date and cost the average college student about $1,000 a year.
Close to 30 Facebook groups are protesting the cost of textbooks. And a new law requires that publishers, starting next year, release more information about textbook pricing and reduce "bundling," or selling materials as part of a package, which is partly responsible for driving up prices.
"There are many unwilling participants in a broken market," said Eric Frank, co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, an online retailer of open-source downloadable books.
Flat World, founded in 2007, has several dozen college texts expressly written -- and approved by professors -- for the company. Last spring, about 1,000 students at 30 colleges ordered books from Flat World. For the fall semester, 38,000 students and 350 colleges are using the online service, Mr. Frank said. He estimates a typical cost savings of 82 percent per student.
"Students are savvy," he said. "They have learned to find out how a professor uses a book. If it is lightly referred to, they are willing to break away."
At Flat World, there are free online versions of texts, but students also can download the whole book into a softcover tome ($29.95) or download individual chapters of some books ($1.99) or order a book plus study aids and practice quizzes ($39.95).
Several other companies are selling open-source materials, and traditional textbook publishers are testing the online waters as well. Industry analysts say online texts account for a 5 percent to 10 percent share of the textbook market. However, many students have found that downloading from a traditional publisher is still costly -- an electronic book may cost $75 instead of $150, for instance.
Digital textbooks are one of many options in an increasingly high-tech learning environment. Hundreds of college lectures are available for download on iTunes, and this year, students at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business will participate in a pilot program with Amazon.com.
Students at UVa., one of seven schools in the pilot program, will use a Kindle DX to carry all books and case studies. Darden Dean Bob Bruner says the Kindle device, which has highlighting, note-taking and dictionary functions, could have a huge impact on student savings, learning and the environment.
College students are increasingly taking advantage of online options, but it is at the high school level where this method could have the most dramatic impact, said Neeru Khosla, co-founder and executive director of CK-12 Foundation, a California nonprofit that advocates digital textbooks or "flexbooks."
"The cost of education has gotten pretty expensive, even in public school," Ms. Khosla said. "Even the people who perceive they are not paying are still paying with their taxes. Using flexbooks would save on marketing, sales, not having to print whole books. The savings could be immense."
CK-12 helped develop several texts that are now being used in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year approved the California Digital Textbook Initiative, which is aimed at helping the state reduce its $350 million textbook spending.
When classes recently began in California public schools, students and teachers had access to the open-source textbooks.
"Just think about the last six years, all the things that happened," Mr. Schwarzenegger said when announcing the program. "For instance, the Iraq war, the country's first African-American president, and all of this you wouldn't have in [traditionally printed] textbooks."
A smaller-scale experiment is under way in Virginia. The state recently approved use of a physics flexbook. The book, written by 13 K-12 science teachers as well as several university professors, has been available for use since last spring. The flexbook is aimed at enriching and complementing other materials already in use.
"The physics flexbook is unique because it was written by teachers in Virginia for use in Virginia," said Myra Thayer, science coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school district in the state. "It could very much change the way we do things."
However, change is likely to be slow, Ms. Thayer said. Most teachers do not teach from textbooks during class, so textbook work is done mostly as homework assignments. While a majority of households in the county have Internet access, the access is not universal. Ms. Thayer said that until every student has a computer -- which is becoming more realistic with the inexpensive option of netbooks -- most school systems will have to rely on traditional textbooks, with digital resources as supplemental options.
"What do we do about the kids who do not have access?" said Ms. Thayer. "We have to look at access outside of school. Some teachers say it is not a problem, that kids can go to the library."
Diana Hasuly-Ackman, social-studies supervisor for Arlington County Public Schools, said economics likely will impede the full embrace of digital textbooks. She also says digital versus traditional is not "an either-or situation." Traditional textbook publishers are already offering a host of optional high-tech materials to supplement books and turn them into more interactive experiences, Ms. Hasuly-Ackman said.
"Just like newspapers, some people feel that sense of touch is important," she said. "To others, reading online is a personal preference. There are probably a host of studies that say which materials are a better resource, but it really depends on the student. There is not a clear-cut answer."
About the Author
Karen Goldberg Goff has been a reporter at The Washington Times since 1992. She currently writes feature-length stories on a variety of topics, including family issues, pop culture, health, food and technology. Follow Karen on Twitter.
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