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Major Publishers Join Indiana U. Project That Requires Students to Buy E-Textbooks

A game-changing e-textbook project at Indiana University—in which the university requires certain students to purchase e-textbooks and negotiates unusually low prices by promising publishers large numbers of sales—now has the participation of major textbook publishers, and university officials plan to expand the effort.

Today McGraw-Hill Higher Education announced that it has agreed to join the project, which has been in a pilot stage for more than a year. A handful of other publishers—John Wiley & Sons; Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group; W.W. Norton; and Flat World Knowledge—have signed on to the effort as well.

Here’s how it works: Students in a select group of courses are required to pay a materials fee, which gets them access to the assigned electronic textbooks or other readings for the course. The university essentially becomes the broker of the textbook sales, and because it is buying in bulk and guaranteeing a high volume, officials say they can score better prices than can the campus bookstore or other retailers.

How good are the prices? Bradley C. Wheeler, the university’s vice president for information technology who is leading the e-textbook effort, says that students save more money through the program than they would if they bought a printed book and resold it at the end of the semester (a common practice among cost-conscious students). A McGraw-Hill official said the deal gave the university a 20 percent discount off its usual e-book prices.

Mr. Wheeler also said that the university’s deal with publishers gives students access to the e-textbooks for a longer period of time than publishers traditionally allow for electronic copies. Typically, the digital textbook files self-destruct after a set period of time, usually a semester or a year. For e-textbooks at Indiana’s program, students are allowed to read the electronic copies for as long as they are enrolled at the university.

The university put out a call for proposals last year asking publishers to participate, and Mr. Wheeler said he still hopes to sign on more publishers. He said persuading the publishers to agree to the price and access terms took some doing, and he described the negotiations with McGraw-Hill in particular as “a very long discussion.”

Officials from McGraw-Hill say that what led them to join was that the model helped them encourage use of the company’s new digitally enhanced textbooks, including its McGraw-Hill Connect line of titles that include online quizzes for students and other features.

This is the first time McGraw Hill has signed an institutional subscription for its e-textbooks, but it hopes to sign similar deals with other universities, said Tom Malek, vice president for learning solutions for McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

He said the Indiana model will help solve another problem faced by professors—that their students often wait to purchase textbooks and are therefore not ready to do assignments at the beginning of the semester. “Now everyone has the materials on the first day of class,” said Mr. Malek.

Each professor at Indiana can decide whether to participate in the e-textbook project. So far 22 courses have done so, and last month the university released a report outlining how those professors and their students (1,700 in all) liked the arrangement. It included data from surveys of students in 12 of those courses—1,037 students.

More than half of them—about 60 percent—said they preferred the e-textbook to a traditional printed copy. But the satisfaction varied wildly by course. In one case, only 36 percent of students preferred the e-textbook, though officials say students in that course were unhappy because the professor made little use of the required textbook so they felt they got limited benefit from the required fee. In another course, 84 percent of students said they preferred the e-textbook to print.

Slightly more than half of the students surveyed—about 55 percent—said they read less of the e-textbook than they would have read from a printed copy, while 22 percent said they read more from the e-textbook than they would have from a printed copy.

Officials were watching closely to see whether students simply printed out the e-books and read from those paper copies. According to system logs, 68 percent of the students printed no pages, while 19 percent printed more than 50 pages.

The report makes it clear that the university is pushing forward with the project: “In summary, we believe that the future is digital and that this model is an important step towards that future.”

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