E-Textbook Pilot Puts College Books In Cloud

Nationwide e-textbook pilot returns for second year to continue testing how post-secondary institutions might switch from printed learning materials to digital.
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How digital textbooks and other educational materials will be distributed, managed and paid for in the future has become a hot topic among academic institutions, textbook publishers and ed tech vendors.

On Monday, one of the largest e-textbook pilot programs to date was announced by a number of key industry players. In total, the project will involve 50 publishers and nearly 30,000 textbooks. Although the number of participating colleges and universities has yet to be determined -- the schools have until the end of April to sign up for the pilot -- last year's test attracted more than two dozen institutions.

Spearheading the effort are two nonprofits, educational association Educause and educational consortium Internet2. Educause, a membership organization for those who "lead, manage, and use information technology to shape strategic IT decisions at every level within higher education," claims a membership of more than 1,800 colleges and universities and 300 businesses serving education. Internet2 claims participation of 220 U.S. universities, 60 corporations, 70 government agencies and 38 regional and state education networks, among others.

[ Libraries without stacks? Read A Digital Public Library Without Paper Books. ]

The pilot, a follow-up to one a year ago, starts in the fall and includes participation by three e-textbook and digital course materials companies, CourseSmart, Courseload and McGraw-Hill Education. The pilot allows institutions to select from the three providers, which collectively offer 50 publishing partners.

"While student and faculty experience in the pilots will inform strategic choices, the most central question is whether institutions see benefit in an institutional approach to digital course materials," Courseload CEO Mickey Levitan said in an email interview with InformationWeek.

Shelton Waggener, Internet2 senior VP, said that this year's pilot would focus more on the needs of institutions and students than last year's. "The pilot intends to address ... how designs that previously focused on the publishing author or faculty member add institutional and student needs into the e-content design," he said in an email interview. "Also, we want to know how cloud-based services interoperate with campus systems and the unique device needs of students."

According to Internet2's news release, this year's pilot, like its predecessor, has two main goals:

-- To continue to advance the higher education community's understanding of online materials and what is necessary for them to attain and surpass the effectiveness, accessibility, economy, and other relevant outcomes associated with traditional textbooks.

-- To explore innovative business models, terms, and conditions that make access to digital educational materials more flexible, economical, efficient, and simple for institutions and publishers alike.

Brad Wheeler, professor and the CIO at Indiana University, characterized Internet2's eText pilot program as "an essential way for institutions to try out new digital textbook options as they work through their campus policies and strategies. Most importantly, it is enabling institutions to learn together and to collectively shape the path to digital."

Indiana University was an early innovator in the e-textbook space. Its own project, now in its third full semester, has some 10,000 IU students involved, and is being tried by two dozen institutions.

Institutions participating in the research project will have a choice between three packages, which allow a select number of students access to any e-textbook within the package's catalog. But as Internet2 says on its website, the flat fee, which covers the e-reader platform, publisher-provided content and integration with the LMS, "is not meant to be a model that would be expanded on a larger scale." In other words, this fee structure applies only to the pilot.

Courseload's Levitan noted the advantages of a common platform for distributing digital course materials.

"On the economic side, an institutional approach creates the conditions for lowest possible cost. On the educational side, outcomes can be improved through tools that support better collaboration, deeper engagement and richer analytics while ensuring that all students have access to all required content from day one," he said.

Colleges and universities interested in participating in the pilot must complete an application by March 8 and submit their signed contract by April 30, 2013.

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