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Massive Digital Textbook Pilot Starts This Fall – Misses the Point Completely

The cost of textbooks is a perennial problem in colleges as students seek to cut costs while publishers keep raising prices. A new pilot program promises to find a way reduce cost by organizing volume purchases  of digital textbooks.

eCampus News covers this story in depth, but tl:dr version is that 28 universities will be partnering with McGraw-Hill this fall for a new digital textbook pilot. The universities will be paying a fee to get a site license for certain digital textbooks provided by McGraw-Hill. The fall 2012 pilot program follows on a similar but smaller pilot in Spring 2012 involving the UC Berkeley, Cornell, the University of Minnesota, UVA, and the University of Wisconsin.

The pilot will only cover a limited number of courses at each university, and participation will be mandatory in those courses, which means this is going to work much the same way as the UMinn program I posted on a couple months back.

Students will get to use the digital textbooks for free, and if they like they can also buy a POD copy. The digital textbook platform will be provided by Courseload, an Indianapolis based startup which has been working on a digital textbook platform for some years now.

Now, if the goal is to save students money then the pilot will be a roaring success. Students don’t have to pay anything to participate; each university will pay the fee out of their operating budget. That’s all well and good for the pilot, but at some point the universities will need to pass the cost along to the students.

There’s an important question that this pilot will have missed, and it really needs to be asked: Will students think it’s in their own financial best interest to go along with the program?

The pilot cannot answer that because we don’t know what the students will end up paying. For all we know the discount offered by the  volume purchase might not even be as good as the price of a used textbook found online. And yes, price is the most important detail; no matter how great a platform might be if students don’t have the money they won’t be able to get it.

In fact, I have to wonder if divorcing the price from this pilot was part of someone’s plan. The pilot will get the schools and students used to the idea of bulk licensing without giving the students a reason to resist.

I’ve posited in the past that much of the current digital textbook hype is exactly that, and I’m afraid that this pilot is more of the same. It bothers me deeply that this pilot is pitched as a way to explore a new business model and the students' money is not changing hands. I don’t see how you can evaluate an idea for a new way to sell digital textbooks when you test only half of it.

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Jon Jermey July 9, 2012 um 5:11 pm

There may be another side to it, though: perhaps it’s also about getting the distributors and publishers used to the idea of bulk licensing, so that when financial pressures begin to drive textbook prices down — and they will — they don’t just throw a hissy fit and go home. A guaranteed revenue stream can be a strong incentive to stay in business even when your profit margins aren’t as high as you would like.

Nate Hoffelder July 10, 2012 um 7:26 am

Getting the publishers to like the idea is necessary, yes, and the pilot is a step in that direction. But that doesn’t make it okay to leave out the students.

Peter July 9, 2012 um 5:14 pm

Isn’t the point of the program that if you are using ebooks, then there’s no really no reason to make student’s pay tuition, and a course fee, and then also pay for the textbook?

Historically, schools have shied away from simply issuing students required textbooks because the schools didn’t want to be responsible for lost, damaged, and/or defaced books. With etexts that concern goes away- as does potential for a used/ shared market- so you might as well just roll the textbook fee into the tuition and treat it like a loan from the university library.

Of course, some students don’t buy the texts because they simply don’t intend to read them. But I doubt school administrator’s ever wanted to encourage that sort of behavior.

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