eTextbooks | Viewpoint
Back to the Future: The Changing Paradigm for College Textbooks and Libraries
- By Fred Stielow, Raymond Uzwyshyn
The debate over electronic textbooks and ever-increasing costs
for traditional textbooks continues to rage. Part of these Web-era
dilemmas ironically involves the willingness to face contradictions from
the university's past.
Reliance on textbooks is the rub. It can
be understood as a legacy of the post-WWII GI bill. Schools needed
industrial-strength solutions to handle the unprecedented waves of new
students. Publishers stepped to the fore to offer a commoditized
solution, albeit with the best of intentions. They would work with a
select group of faculty to produce a wide variety of textbooks, they
would entice other instructors with free review copies, and students
would incur reasonable shipping and costs.
Yet, an escalating
cycle of problems also ensued. Used book sales and campus bookstores
arose to offer schools a ready flow of income. Those creations
undermined the publishers' profit potential and growing sense of
entitlement. By the end of the 90s, publisher redress resulted in the
ever more rapid introduction of “new” editions and an inflationary
nightmare for students.
Student upset after Y2K led to
congressional investigations and, ultimately, the 2008 Higher Education
Opportunity Act. HEOA mandated that “… students have access to
affordable course materials by decreasing costs to students and
enhancing transparency and disclosure with respect to the selection,
purchase, sale, and use of course materials.”
And, the Web's long
tail entered the scene. In the early 21st century, viable electronic
alternatives appeared with pricing differentials. The Web also brought
forth a new player: the online university with its asynchronous
classrooms. Since these schools typically lack traditional, interactive
lectures, they lend a higher premium to assigned readings.
American Public University System went even further. Under the mantle of
its original American Military University (AMU) brand, the school
pioneered the underwriting of undergraduate course materials. Instead of
a pass-through, textbook costs became part of a bottom-line equation
and different type of entrepreneurial scrutiny. The response was led by
the most traditional element of our university--the library. It
questioned past university models and promoted an innovative three-part
growth and diversification strategy--one with broad implications for all
of higher education.Electronic Textbooks
: Given the
evolving state of electronic textbooks and a largely military student
clientele, we initially relied on print and mail shipments. In 2006, we
transitioned to electronic bookstore operations. What was expected to be
a simple electronic conversion process quickly proved to be more
complex. We were thrust into incomplete technologies and the paranoid
world of textbook publishers. Research revealed the reasonableness of
negotiating for a 65 percent discount off print price. Although
publisher finance departments squirm, that level was justified by the
elimination of used book sales, warehousing, and production costs.
Short-term rentals at roughly the same price seemed illogical and were
dismissed as options.
Operations themselves are still unfolding.
The issues of a unified reading experience and digital rights management
remain. Attention also increasingly turns to the immense savings from
open-access textbooks, which have been growing in both availability and
: The second prong focused on the
academic library. The library would be a proactive element in seeding
course materials. In our analysis, the university was already paying
vast sums of money to capitalize information resources. Why not use
them? Research established that much of the barriers drew from a
19th-century research trope, which gave birth to the modern university.
It didn’t make sense, however, to continue the divorce from the
classroom for a teaching institution in the Information Age. Indeed, how
could one pretend to teach advanced courses in any discipline without
redress to the field's scholarly journals, articles, resources, and
databases? And, to what degree do such classes even require a textbook?
solution was further enhanced by recruiting subject-specialist
librarians. They would work in partnerships with faculty--especially as
the school explored new programs. Who better to help maintain currency
and quality, while uncovering treasures on the Open Web and within the
library's own licensed scholarly literature?University Press
The third, and final, element places us within the small, but growing
ranks of those re-engineering financially challenged universities. Our
same logic persevered with the historical roots to the same 19th-century
research orientation as the library. Again, why not orient presses
toward direct classroom services? Why should students pay external
publishers for anthologies of materials already freely available on the
Web? What’s more, why should a university or program be forced to buy
back the writings of their own faculty?
The reply concentrates
on niche programs. We look to programs where the faculty is strongest,
external course literature weakest, and student demand makes economic
sense. Our new AMU ePress then engages faculty as authors and editors
along with accompanying librarians for added Web research. Their
collective task is to produce the highest-quality electronic textbooks
for internal consumption, coupled with flexible, print-on-demand options
That is a brief overview of a dynamic electronic
bookstore, online library, and e-press “mashup.” While still unfolding,
results to-date have been encouraging. Quality and currency are
enhanced. Textbook inflation has been stalled with annual savings now
totaling in the millions. Equally important, such proactive initiatives
proffer a fundamental redefinition of university course materials and
herald new pedagogies for the Web Age.
Fred Stielow is Dean of Libraries and Course Materials for the American Public University.
Raymond Uzwyshyn is Director of Online Libraries for the American Public University System.