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CSULB Students Can Save Money With Online Textbooks Program

Published: October 15, 2010

CSULB is offering seven courses this semester that allow students to forego regular printed textbooks in favor of online copies at a discount that is 65 percent off the publisher’s recommended list price, potentially saving students hundreds of dollars.

Part of the California State University (CSU) system’s Digital Marketplace initiative, the digital licensing pilot program is being tested at five CSU campuses this fall with more than 32 courses in all. Students in these courses still attend courses in the traditional classroom setting. The only difference is in the textbooks themselves.

“The digital licensing program is the result of the CSU looking at how we deliver education, and identifying ways we can be innovative in creating a better learning environment at a lower cost,” said CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed.

In these pilot courses, students have the ability to view the content on their computers, laptops, iPads, iPhones or other devices. Students can also take notes in the digital “margins,” highlight and bookmark for faster searches. In addition, students may print up to 10 pages at a time.

Political Science’s Richard Haesly, who teaches an “Introduction to American Government” (POSC 100) course this semester with some 170 students using the online textbook, said he is glad to see that the CSU system is concerned about the costs of textbooks. He also is pleased that the system seems dedicated to taking into account the feedback of the students and faculty in determining the strengths and weaknesses of online textbooks.

“I am pleased that the CSU system has decided to run this as a pilot study first, and the system’s willingness to take into account the students’ reactions, as well as the professors’ and the bookstore’s experience with the program, is impressive,” said Haesly, a faculty member at CSULB since 2001. “As a social scientist, I think that basing policy decisions – such as ‘should we have more sections using online textbooks’ – are best made with the feedback from those who would be impacted the most by such policies. I do think that there are some students who may not like online textbooks, and we need to know how many students are in that category.”

From his perspective, however, there isn’t much that he doesn’t like about online textbooks.

“The price is clearly an important benefit. The textbook that I am using for my ‘Introduction to American Government’ course uses a textbook that retails new for $110. The campus bookstore can usually negotiate with the publisher to get the books for around $80,” Haesly explained. “The cost of the main textbook for my course with this pilot program is $39.90. This compares very favorably with the prices that students can get the book by trying to buy the book used through various online sources.

“Additionally, it seems as if many of our students are more comfortable with an online version of the textbook more than they would a physical book, especially since the textbook is pretty bulky,” he continued. “If students find ways to download the book onto laptops, iPads, iPhones, etc., then it might be the case that more students will bring the textbook with them to lecture, which could be beneficial for those students and for the level of discussion that we can have in class.”

Still, the political scientist is not entirely convinced that online textbooks work equally well for all students.

“For some students, and I would probably be in this category myself, they do not read material online in the same way that they read an actual book,” Haesly noted. “For example, they might not take as many notes online than they would if they had a highlighter and a pen, even though the online version does allow for students to add their notes to the online text.

“Similarly, even though laptops, iPads, iPhones, etc., are prevalent, there are many of our students who probably cannot afford such luxuries,” he added. “If many of our courses start to use online textbooks only, such students might find it necessary to buy such electronics as another cost of education, and such a cost might be too much for some of our students.”

Haesly said that so far the students’ reactions to the online textbook have been generally positive. He has noticed that a handful of students – perhaps five to 10 out of a class of 170 – have expressed some reservations about using an online textbook since they prefer to have a physical book. The online textbook allows students to print out copies of their online book, that they can put into a folder or a binder, but some students are not convinced that this would be similar to having a physical book.

“I have also had a few students who have tried to find the book for a cheaper price by buying it online. The price for the online version of the book, however, is very competitive at $39.90, so many of those searching for it more cheaply will probably end up buying the online version that is offered through our bookstore,” Haesly pointed out. “Also, some students are upset because they will not be able to sell back their textbooks if they are electronic. However, the price point that the publishers are offering for this pilot program makes it so that the net cost to students, even taking into account the money that they could get from textbook buyback at the end of the semester, is lower with the e-texts.”

Other courses using the online textbooks this semester include three different “Calculus for Business” (Math 115) courses, which are being taught by Ladera Barbee, Florence Newberger and William Zeimer; a “Management Information Systems” (IS 300) class taught by Asela Thomason; and a “Social Psychology” (PSY 351) course taught by Dennis Thoman.

The pilot program is expected to expand to more courses and campuses next spring. This is made possible by the CSU’s Digital Marketplace initiative, a partnership with five of the largest academic publishers – Bedford, Freeman, Worth; Cengage Learning; McGraw-Hill; Pearson; and John Wiley and Sons.

“If a majority of the students are indifferent or prefer an online book to a physical one,” Haesly said, “and the costs could be kept to the level that makes the online book competitive with the used textbook market, then I might be in favor of finding a way to make the online textbook more widespread.”

CSULB faculty or staff with questions regarding textbook licensing or who are interested in learning how they can participate in the program this spring can contact the University Bookstore Textbook Department Office by calling 562/985-7780.

Through the CSU Affordable Learning Solutions campaign, the CSU system continues to look for other low cost and no cost educational resources for professors and students. In fact, the CSU announced in August a partnership with SoftChalk to allow faculty to author their own digital content. Ultimately, the goal is to provide faculty with as many choices as possible when preparing affordable, accessible content for the classroom.

–Rick Gloady