Online textbooks are gaining popularity, changing how students study

Thursday, August 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:11 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 6, 2009

COLUMBIA — Even though Steven Osterlind has authored print textbooks, the MU education professor decided to use a digital textbook for the first time this summer.

Osterlind, who taught an introduction to educational statistics class, said the online textbook provided students with additional information and resources if they didn’t understand material covered in lecture or in their printed textbook.


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Digital textbooks are able to provide direct links to accompanying audio or video. Osterlind said almost every paragraph of the textbook linked to supplementary media or guiding questions. Still, the new technology was an adjustment for his class.

“It took some time getting used to for me and the students,” Osterlind said. “Students are used to things being digitally presented, but it still took them a while.”

As the cost of printed textbooks continues to rise, some students and professors are turning to digital options to supplement learning. Digital textbooks are usually about 50 percent cheaper than regular textbooks, said Michelle Froese, public relations manager for MU student and auxiliary services.

At the same time, students don't receive money from textbook buyback like they can with regular textbooks, Froese said. Digital textbooks also tend to be available for a semester, whereas students can choose to keep their printed textbooks.

Since its launch in August 2007, students at more than 5,000 colleges and universities have purchased e-textbooks from CourseSmart, according to Gabrielle Zucker, a spokeswoman for the digital textbook company.

The California-based business has worked with 12 higher education textbook manufacturers, including Pearson, Cengage Learning and McGraw-Hill, to make about 7,000 books available in an e-book format. Zucker said the company's sales are up 600 percent this year compared to last year.

This spring, MU's University Bookstore offered 70 different digital textbooks, Froese said. Of the 277,966 textbooks sold last year, 326 were digital. The bookstore plans to offer about 200 digital textbooks this fall, she said.

Stephens College's bookstore, The Bookshelf, is a branch of MU's bookstore and, according to Froese, no Stephens professors plan to use digital textbooks this fall. Columbia College's bookstore is an affiliate of Barnes and Noble College Bookstores, which could not be reached for more information on the use of digital textbooks at the college.

The digital textbook used in Osterlind’s MU class supplemented a printed textbook. Student Jenna Yungck said she thought the digital textbook was easy to use.

“It has great online examples for every problem,” she said.

Clyde Bentley, a professor in the MU School of Journalism, said he hasn’t used a printed textbook in four years. He started using digital textbooks in his advertising classes because there were few print books available on the subject.

Bentley said he found the switch to digital beneficial because it allowed information to be more easily updated. He discussed a recent experience with a printed book about Internet commerce. The book didn’t mention eBay or because those companies weren’t popular when the book was written. It then took three years until the book was printed, Bentley said.

“Textbooks are not like novels. They don’t stand the test of time,” Bentley said. “A textbook has to be constantly changed and updated to be valid.”

While Bentley has felt confident using digital textbooks, he said his students did not initially react the same way.

“At first, the students really didn’t like it because it was online,” Bentley said. “It was really interesting because these were the same students telling me the news media needed to go to the Web.”

A research study about the use of digital textbooks at MU was conducted in the spring by a group of students in an MU marketing research class. While the research was focused on students, the group found professors were more accepting of digital textbooks than students, according to Ashley Calcaterra, a member of the research group.

“I think it's because they (professors) don't have to worry about the same things students do, such as the ease of studying with digital texts,” Calcaterra said.

According to Calcaterra, the research study was conducted using a marketing research process and formulas provided by the professor. About 300 students from different majors and class rankings were asked to complete a survey of about 15 questions on the uses of digital textbooks.

Calcaterra said many of the surveyed students hadn't experienced digital textbooks and “do not fully understand how they are used.”

National Association of College Stores spokesman Charles Schmidt said there has been a small increase in digital textbooks sold at college stores nationwide, but these textbooks still only account for 2 to 3 percent of textbooks sales.

He said he thinks there will be an increase in demand when the digital content is more interactive and specifically designed for digital, not just a PDF version of the printed textbooks.

Froese said the MU bookstore will continue to develop its availability of digital textbooks, but she thinks interest will grow more when elementary and secondary students have to use digital textbooks daily. Froese said students have to decide if digital fits their personal learning style.

Although the digital textbook in Osterlind’s class was easy for Yungck to use, she said she would still prefer to read a printed book.

Osterlind agreed and said while publishers are eager to save money and make the digital transition, it will not be an easy one.

“A lot of people like hard-copy books,” Osterlind said. “It is hard to read more than one to two pages of text on a screen.”

As far as Osterlind’s personal work, he said he has no plans to work on a digital textbook of his own. However, he said he would use a digital textbook in his classes again.

"I thought the digital textbook was very well thought out and very helpful in a large class," Osterlind said.

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John Charlse August 24, 2009 | 5:38 a.m.

I would like to recommend buying international textbooks: They offered a great deal for me and the international textbooks are the same as the corresponding USA edition with the cover to be a different design. But, hey, with up to 75% off, it worth it. I have been trying to tell all my friends about it and you can find out yourself.

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