"I said, 'Oh my, we're going be invaded by consumer-grade [tablet computers],'" the Indiana University business professor and CIO told InformationWeek in a phone call.
While Wheeler's intuition about the explosion of tablets -- 15 months before Apple released its first iPad -- was spot on, his real concern was how the university would manage content on these devices. Just as important, he was concerned about the prices students would have to pay for this digital content.
At the time, textbook publishers were keen to control their lucrative textbook price margins, as it was clear education was going digital, Wheeler said. Publishers saw digital as a way of dealing with the used-textbook aftermarket, which had begun to cut into their business, he added.
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An ancillary problem was technological, as every publisher at the time dreamed of using its own platform for its own digital titles. "This would have been a support and [digital rights management] nightmare," Wheeler said. "We wanted to get ahead of that," he said, adding he wanted to use a wholesale, site-license model, which IU had successfully done with software companies years before.
"We cut one of the first big [license deals] with Microsoft in 1998, and cut the first deal with Adobe in 2008," Wheeler said. Under the Adobe license, for instance, IU students have access to virtually every Adobe software product.
Wary at first, publishers have been receptive to IU's overtures, said Wheeler, who has inked deals with four of the five largest textbook publishers to date, and is close on the fifth. The e-texts deals also include online simulations, tutors and labs.
Handling the licensing deals for more than two dozen other institutions piloting e-text is Internet2, the nonprofit educational consortium. Internet2 claims participation of 220 U.S. universities, 60 corporations, 70 government agencies and 38 regional and state education networks, among others.
Now in its third full semester, some 10,000 IU students are part of its e-text initiative, which has doubled to 250 course sections in just the past year. From a cost standpoint, IU believes it has saved $200,000 in total over next-best options.
At IU, e-texts are managed by Courseload, an online learning and collaboration platform. Among other things, Courseload lets teachers add any sort of media or annotate existing textbooks, and push this onto students' devices. Similarly, students can highlight or add notes to their digital files, as well as collaborate with others -- for example, members of a study group. Synchronization is handled over the network.
Along with ongoing, searchable access to all of their e-texts while they are enrolled at IU, students using e-text can print for no additional cost or get full printed versions for a small fee.
The ability to print a digital textbook on demand is of interest to assistant microbiology professor Tanya Noel at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. "We've asked, and very few of my students have expressed interest in electronic [textbooks]," Noel told InformationWeek in a phone call. "But if we had access to printing and reduced costs, students would be much more willing to use it, and I'd be much more willing to endorse it as a professor," she said.
Asked what comes next for IU, Wheeler was quick to answer. "We've improved the economics [of textbooks] ... Now, how do we improve the efficacy of teaching?"
He said this next phase will involve analysis of how students use digital content, and how this relates to educational outcomes.