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Early Finding of Cal State U. E-Textbook Study: Terms Matter

California State University is running one of the nation’s largest pilot studies of e-textbooks, involving thousands of students on five campuses, and one of the biggest findings so far boils down to the cliché the devil is in the details. Whether or not students liked their digital textbooks depended on what rules publishers set on how the digital books could be used.

“Every publisher has a little bit different terms and conditions,” said Gerard L. Hanley, senior director of academic technology services at California State University’s office of the chancellor. Such rules, including whether a student can print the whole book or only a portion of it, or whether the text can be downloaded to a computer or only accessed online, “really impact the students’ ability to use the content,” he added.

The university system has prepared a preliminary report on the project, which Mr. Hanley summarized for The Chronicle but declined to share until a more detailed report is available in a few weeks. The preliminary report was first reported last week by Converge Magazine.

The experiment in the fall semester involved 3,870 students in 30 course sections who were in courses where an e-textbook was assigned. Thousands more students were in a control group of similar courses using traditional textbooks, Mr. Hanley said.

Results so far have been mixed. Among the 662 students who answered a survey after the fall term ended, about one-third said they were satisfied with the experience, one-third said they were neutral, and one-third said they were dissatisfied, officials said.

That diversity of opinion surprised the project’s leaders, who said they are sharing their results with the participating publishers, in hopes that the publishers will adjust their policies in response to student critiques. “We want the material to be as learning-effective as possible and affordable,” Mr. Hanley said. The five publishers who participated in the fall were Cengage, Pearson, Macmillan, McGraw-Hill, and John Wiley and Sons. CourseSmart, a company set up by textbook publishers to distribute their electronic books, also participated.

Would the university consider ditching the e-book idea completely based on the experiment’s mixed results?

“It’s not a question of if we’re going to digital resources—that is coming,” Mr. Hanley said. “It’s more affordable, and on the business side, it is more sustainable.” He noted that the experiment’s Web site also pointed professors to free online resources to supplement classroom experts, including a collection called MERLOT that is supported by the university.

“We try to make it easy for faculty and students to find content that meets their budget,” Mr. Hanley said.

Students who were assigned e-textbooks were more likely to buy the book than those in courses that required traditional texts, which officials took as a positive result. In the survey, 73 percent of students in e-textbook courses bought the course material, while only 46 percent of students in traditional courses bought the book. Officials believe that the lower cost of the electronic texts led to the increase.

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