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Text Book Case for Digital Learning

HEAVY, expensive, often quickly out of date. Textbooks can break a student's budget, with the cost for some courses running into hundreds of dollars a semester. But e-textbooks, accessible through tablet devices such as the Kindle and iPad, could change that. In July, online retail giant Amazon announced textbooks would be available for rent to students in the US, saving them up to 80 per cent on the cost of a hard copy. The scheme would allow users to make notes and mark pages in their e-textbooks, making them truly the student's own, but it is not clear that students will jump on board.

Concerns over the expense of e-readers, the usefulness of a soft copy and the logistics of using the texts in highly regulated university examinations have made students slow to adopt the new technology.

La Trobe University law student Andrew Smith says printed textbooks usually cost him about $1200 a year, and are quickly superseded.

"I'm doing a double degree, so with a full-time course load my textbooks are usually in the order of $600 a semester with a lot of the textbooks in law subjects quickly becoming outdated as legislation is revised," he says. "Last year I bought a copy of the Corporations Act in a textbook, which was $130 or $140, and that becomes obsolete at the end of each year due to amendments to the legislation."

Still, the 22-year-old says he isn't sure e-books and rental schemes are the answer. "Initially it seems like a viable solution but in practice I think it would be impractical," he says.

"You have the additional cost of having to purchase a Kindle or some kind of e-book reader, which I don't have and I don't have the money to purchase either."

Mr Smith believes equity is a real issue, with low-income students unable to afford the technology that would allow them to access cheaper texts. And he raises concerns about how he would use an e-textbook in an open book exam. "A lot of my subjects have open book exams where a textbook is needed for reference to cases and legislation and under exam conditions electronic devices are not permitted," Mr Smith said.

"I'd still need to have a hard copy to have the relevant sections available to reference in exams so I'd have to double up." Amazon has not said if it plans to roll out the rental idea worldwide, but Australian universities are keeping a close eye on the technology and are considering ways to incorporate it into their curriculum.

David Spencer, associate dean of the faculty of law and management at La Trobe, says universities need to ensure that students are able to use e-textbooks in the same way they would a hard copy. That would mean allowing electronic readers into exams.

"I think the poor old [exam supervisors] would probably have apoplexy and that's why we need to develop a policy," he says. "The only thing you'd have to be very very careful of is that internet access through these devices is very very easy."

But Professor Spencer says e-textbooks have many advantages, and already publishers are offering authors the choice of publishing electronically. "These resources can be produced more cheaply than expensive books, which have to be bound . . . It's definitely the future." And he says universities need to be early adopters when it comes to new technology, because students generally are. To keep young minds engaged with course materials new ways have to be found to engage with students.

But how to allow electronic readers into open book exams is a difficult question, with Professor Spencer saying it is virtually impossible to ensure students would not use them to get answers from the internet and communicate with people outside of the exam. Still, with most students not yet sporting iPads and Kindles, it may be a far-off consideration for university administrations. For now, the majority of students are struggling with the cost of the old technology.

A National Union of Students survey earlier this year found more than half of students thought textbooks were too expensive and they "struggled to afford them". "Students find it difficult to afford the steep upfront cost of textbooks each semester, and moves to make access easier are welcome," says Jesse Marshall, national president of the union.

Mr Marshall says e-textbook rental schemes, such as the Amazon program, could provide some cost benefits if students could access their e-texts when they needed to. "Textbooks are currently a barrier to successful study for many students, with those who are unable to afford them having to try and get through subjects without essential reading material," he says.

But he cautions that the cost of e-readers could cancel out the savings benefit of cheaper e-books and says that rental schemes and e-books shouldn't be treated as a substitute for hard copies, which most students still prefer.

Monash University librarian Cathrine Harboe-Ree says e-books are already a large part of university collections, but that e-textbooks are far less common. "In the library now we have about 366,000 e-books [but] the move into e-textbooks has been a lot slower than the move into making other books available electronically." Ten years ago, the Monash library was buying 15,000 print journals and 60,000 books a year. Now it subscribes to 100,000 e-journals, with the number of print subscriptions down to 6000 and the number of books dropping from 60,000 to 40,000.

Ms Harboe-Ree says e-publishing offers many benefits for universities and students, but there isn't yet widespread use of the technology. "There are lower costs in producing e-books than print books and if those kind of savings can be passed on to students that's a wonderful thing," she says. Key to the widespread uptake of e-textbooks would be the ability for students to access them across various platforms. "Students will probably welcome [e-textbook rental schemes] if it's significantly cheaper and they can use it on devices they already have, and that will open up the potential for textbooks to utilise the technology as well . . . these books are very expensive really, so it's a win win."

Ms Harboe-Ree says the e-textbook market in Australia suffers from a lack of consistency in the way publishers choose to distribute them. One publisher may license an e-textbook only for use online and not available for download; another may allow students to download it temporarily, and a third may allow a permanent download. Without consistency, Ms Harboe-Ree says, it's hard to effectively use the technology.

"It's incredibly varied and that's a problem. In some cases publishers allow the e-book to be downloaded to another device and that's fine; sometimes they allow no more than 10 per cent," she says. "[Students] can look at it from any web-enabled computer, so they can look at it from home, but they can't always download. Other publishers allow downloading but it's programmed to self-destruct after a few days." Ms Harboe-Ree says most students still prefer to borrow a traditional book. "[E-books are] a very common part of our environment now but I'm not sure that its exactly the same thing [as having a hard copy] . . . if you've got to read the book cover to cover some of our users say they'd rather read it in print," she says. "Not everybody wants to spend all day on the computer and then all night on the computer as well."

La Trobe student Andrew Smith agrees. "Call me old-fashioned, but I really like having a hard copy of my textbook so that I can put post-it notes in there and write and scribble notes on pages. So I think it's good to have the original form."


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