This digital textbook distributor has just announced CourseSmart Subscription Packs, a new lower priced option for digital textbook rentals.
Students now have the option of paying $200 and renting up to 6 digital textbooks for 150 days.They'll be able to choose from CourseSmart’s catalog of more than 40,000 titles and access the textbooks from CourseSmart's apps for iPad, Android, Windows, iPhone, and their web browser.
If this sounds familiar, it should; Coursesmart tested the idea in a pilot program last Fall. That pilot offered students access to a dozen textbooks for $275, with the fee to be collected/paid by the university. I have no information on the results of that pilot but clearly CourseSmart found something they liked.
But will students like it? I don't know, but I can tell that there's a couple catches.
The press release says that students will be able to "choose from CourseSmart’s catalog of more than 40,000 titles from more than 50 publishers", but if you check the CourseSmart website you'll see that it implies that not all titles carried by CourseSmart can be included in this bundle. The CourseSmart FAQ also makes it clear that students can only add titles to a bundle when they first pay the rental fee; there's no option for swapping one book out and replacing it with a different title that you might need later in the semester.
That means that a student is limited to only getting 6 specific titles for their $200, making this less of a subscription access fee than a rental bundle. The distinction is important, IMO.
I think the limitation lowers the potential value and reduces the utility. The average college student will need more than 6 textbooks in a given semester, so they are going to have to consider whether this $200 price is worth the cost.
It would not have been a good value when I was in school; I could usually get my costs for 6 textbooks down below $200. But given how publishers are jacking up textbook prices that may no longer be the case.
But even if this turns out to be a good deal, digital textbooks are still fraught with peril. As you might recall, the CourseSmart servers crashed back in April 2013, depriving some students access to the digital textbooks they had rented. Some of the students were taking studying for finals at the time, and were understandably panicked at the downtime.