Posted by: Mary Simone | October 24, 2011

EBooks: Portable, Interactive, Cost-Effective

As university students cry “ouch” when they pay for textbooks, faculty on many campuses are looking to digital textbooks to help soften the book-bill blow. According to a research report from (a digital content distributor), in the next five years, digital textbook sales in the US will surpass 25% of the combined new textbook sales for higher education because, among other reasons, the cost of electronic textbooks and learning materials is lower,  digital materials are becoming increasingly available (and free online knowledge providers such as OpenCourseWare and Flat World Knowledge are expanding their reach),  and digital readers and other mobile devices are increasingly popular (Reynolds).  At the same time, eBooks are not only portable, but they allow for a level of interactivity that print media do not.

At UMass Boston, the University Library and IT’s Division of Education Technology are working together to introduce eTextbooks to faculty and students. The current direction builds on past history.  For years, the library has offered electronic reserves services (Docutek ERes) services to professors, enabling them to place student course materials such as book chapters, journal articles, and lecture notes on the campus deep and secure web and to create links to them through Blackboard course sites.  The library has also been offering a long list of titles and a full-text of electronic journals and books available through various electronic collections such as books24x7 (relevant titles appear through a regular library catalog search).

Now most university libraries are expanding their collections to include electronic textbooks and  the University Library and IT are talking to companies such as XanEdu, which can build digital course packs through mixing and matching selections from electronic collections available on campus or through publishers.  The library and IT are also looking at the convenient interactive features of electronic textbooks and the usability of apps to make course content available on different eReader devices. Recently, Inkling came out with an interactive text app for the iPad. The company has also negotiated with McGraw Hill, Prentice Hall and Benjamin Cummings to interface with their textbook collections.

At UMass Boston, elementary French courses are currently using a hard book version of a McGraw Hill textbook called En avant!  The CourseSmart digital version (or eTextbook) of En avant! offers students web tool interactivity at almost half of the printed cost.  The electronic version can be downloaded for maximum portability on a mobile device, or customized for sale at the bookstore in print form.  Professor Pratima Prasad, Chair of Modern Languages, is planning a customized e-textbook for French 102 courses for Spring 2012. The customized version would contain a portion of the chapters of the hardcopy textbook and be available digitally via subscription as well as for sale in print at the bookstore at a much-reduced cost to students.

University Librarian Daniel Ortiz sees the potential of digitized books to customize learning, research and teaching and would like faculty and students to have the opportunity to sample interactive digital textbooks in their courses. Apurva Mehta, Director of Educational Technology and Client Services, supports this eTextbook initiative because it would bring portability and interactivity to learning and teaching.  Together they hope to work with faculty and students to introduce ETextbooks into their courses.

Digitized textbooks can save as much as 45% off of the cost of printed. Technology watchers such as CNET News are reporting that major textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson have moved in the direction of making more of their collections electronic, and many have signed deals to export their textbooks, study guides, and test prep manuals to the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch (Whitney).  The E-Book Reader resource site offers reviews and resources regarding various tablets eReaders such as Kindle and Nook as well as comparisons of their different features. Most offer students advanced highlighting, note-taking, and search options.

If an appropriate eTextbook is not readily available, faculty can also customize from eBooks, eJournals, videos, and audio files to create their own eTextbook, mixing and matching content from diverse sources, especially if they are bundling selected chapters of a textbook title with their own academic work. For example, AcademicPub provides custom books for either digital or print distribution and offers copyright clearance, digital rights management and royalties management for custom course texts. Theirs is a build-your own textbook model where professors can pull in original content, and any kind of free content from the web, mix and match book chapters, case studies, and journal articles

Likewise, XanEdu packages diverse content from business cases, newspaper and magazine articles, instructors’ own materials, course syllabi for eBook and print.  They will help professors build a course packet with material from diverse authorized titles from their library of materials from major publishers and will deliver print and digital versions of the texts to students. (Increasingly, publishers are negotiating with bookstores to resell customized print course packs that would return even more savings to the students, and potentially more profits to faculty who publish original work.)

Another potential campus model is one where the library owns the material and has paid for the copyright and professors could draw from materials already within the library’s collection to make an eTextbook at no cost to the student.  Some usage restrictions may apply to this model as some limits are in place for “seats” in a licensed product such as Web of Science where only one or two simultaneous users are allowed. Where the cost of expanding the library’s license to include more simultaneous student usage would be prohibitive, a model where faculty would go to AcademicPub or XanEdu who would then charge the student for the eTextbook could still be used.

University Library and IT can help faculty sort through the different options for textbook selection and distribution.   Are you currently using mobile devices for your courses, or would you like to? Click this link to a very quick survey to let us know. Are you interested in learning more about making effective us of an IPad ?  Click this link to register for an upcoming IPad workshop: iHave iPad….Now What.


Reynolds, Rob.  “Digital Textbooks Reaching the Tipping Point in U.S. Higher Education.  A Revised Five-Year Forecast.”  Xplana Whitepaper, March 2011, accessed October 18, 2011,   

Whitney, Lance. “Textbook Publishers Heading to IPad. CNET News Feb 3 2010, accessed October 18, 2011,


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