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Temple U. Project Ditches Textbooks for Homemade Digital Alternatives

When students groan about buying traditional textbooks, their grievances follow a familiar refrain: They’re expensive and usually boring. So this fall, a team of Temple University professors heeded those complaints and abandoned the old-fashioned texts for low-cost alternatives that they built from scratch.

The pilot project gave 11 faculty members $1,000 each to create a digital alternative to a traditional textbook. To enliven their students’ reading, the instructors pulled together primary-source documents and material culled from library archives. Steven J. Bell, the associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple, said the project tried to create new kinds of learning experiences while saving students money at the same time. The textbooks covered a variety of subjects, including biomechanics, writing, and marketing. The Temple program mirrors a similar effort announced at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in December.

Kristina M. Baumli, a lecturer in Temple’s English department, said she was motivated to join the project because textbook content doesn’t always meet the intellectual curiosity of students. Her students reacted “with glee” at the online book’s free price tag, she said. She used Blackboard to bring together content for the paperless text, but said that her students weren’t stuck reading in front of a screen every night. The course’s local ethnography project ensured that students could go outside and experience the material firsthand.

“It pushed them from the computer out into the real world,” Ms. Baumli said.

She acknowledged that her online text sometimes allowed students to get distracted by Facebook or other Web sites during class, but added that those same students would probably waste time sending text messages in a class using a traditional textbook anyway. By requiring students to grapple with primary sources and find their own journal articles, she said, she could teach in a way that emphasized process rather than memorization of facts in a book. One of her colleagues in the project even required students to submit assignments to be included in their marketing textbook, which was eventually used as study material for the final exam.

Mr. Bell said discussions were under way for a second round of the alternative-textbook program, which will likely include another 10 grants. For the next set of projects, Mr. Bell said faculty members would be encouraged to experiment even more with their alternative textbooks, incorporating student suggestions and using social media.

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