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Brown among colleges to offer digital books

By
Thursday, September 22, 2005

Ten U.S. colleges, including fellow Ivy League member Princeton University, have introduced digital textbooks this semester as part of a new pilot program, and Brown may follow suit as soon as January.

Textbook distributor MBS Textbook Exchange has teamed up with several publishers, including McGraw-Hill Higher Education and Houghton Mifflin Company to bring students digital textbooks from academic subjects across the board.

Princeton currently offers nine digital titles, a fraction of the total number of textbooks offered by its bookstore. To purchase an electronic version of a book, students buy a card displayed next to the hard copies of the book. Once at home, students scratch their cards to reveal a number that allows them access to the book online.

Each textbook can be downloaded to only one computer as a PDF file. With this format students can highlight passages and listen to audio clips.

The introduction of digital textbooks continues the recent trend of technological advances on college campuses, said Virginia France, marketing director at the Princeton University Store. “It seemed like a natural progression. We offer wireless access; we want to offer as many choices as we can,” she said.

Digital textbooks are also cheaper than their physical counterparts, costing two-thirds the price of regular books on average, France said. A new copy of an introductory statistics textbook costs $96.25, a used copy costs $72.95 and an electronic version costs $63.50, she said. But the digital books cannot be sold back to the university at the end of the semester.

Currently digital textbooks are not selling very well at Princeton, possibly because of the small sample of titles available and students’ desire for something physical, France said. “Students say they really want to have a book,” she said. But France is hopeful that the idea will catch on. “Every year people are becoming less cautious about new technology.”

Princeton students are curious about the idea, even if they’re not buying. “People have been talking about it,” said Princeton first-year Carine Davila. A large sign at the entrance to the bookstore announces the digital textbooks as customers enter and the postings continue throughout the store.

Davila herself has not bought any electronic textbooks, nor does she know anybody else who has. “I’m a little old-fashioned,” she said, referring to her enjoyment of the feel of a book in her hands. She said she imagines it would be annoying to have to scroll up and down pages on a computer rather than being able to immediately turn to a section in a book.

MBS Textbook Exchange plans to survey students who bought digital textbooks this semester, as well as those who didn’t, in order to find out their reactions, said Brown’s Director of Bookstore and Services Larry Carr. The information that they gather will be used to improve the program for its second phase.

Brown may introduce electronic textbooks as soon as January, Carr said. “We’re very interested and we are on the list for the second phase,” he said.

Despite the University’s enthusiasm about participating in the pilot program, Carr said he has some concerns. The relatively few titles currently offered limit the choices available to students, although the number may increase when the pilot program is extended to over 100 schools.

Carr said certain questions must be addressed concerning students’ needs and desires. “Are they going to want to sit in front of a computer?” he said. Pages can be printed out, but Carr said students may not want to carry around many loose pages.

A problem of particular importance at Brown is the inability to return a digital textbook once it is loaded to a computer, he said. Many students buy and return textbooks during shopping period as they add and drop courses. Electronic books do not offer this freedom.

Edward Weiss, textbook manager at Brown, said that students’ interest will increase as computers become more handheld and thus more convenient.

Brown students seem less than enthusiastic about the prospect of digital textbooks. “I would be interested in it as a suapplement. It’s useful to have the real solid thing,” said Daniel Perez ’09.

People’s predictions that digital textbooks would be the next big thing appear to be wrong for now, Weiss said.

“It’s not going to go away,” Carr said, “but it’s not to going to take off like a rocket.”

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