University of Iowa participates in free e-book pilot program


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Instead of trying to decipher a professor's instructions or begging to borrow a classmate's notes, annotations attached directly to the text will be a click away for students during the upcoming fall semester in approximately 20 courses participating in a pilot program offering free e-text access.

The University of Iowa is one of 50 institutions that has joined a study run by education research companies EDUCAUSE and Internet2.

In addition to receiving online textbook access for approximately 800 students, each university will conduct its own companion research on e-texts' effectiveness and the satisfaction of students and staff who use them.

Maggie Jesse, the senior director of Instructional Services for UI Information Technology Services and the manager of the university's participation in the program, said the response from professors has been enthusiastic.

"[We had] 30 faculty emailing us in the middle of the summer to say that they're interested — that's pretty impressive," she said. "Now, we're working on about 10 who are left who use the right text books [published by the study's partner, McGraw-Hill]."

ITS plans to complete a list of participating courses by July 15.

Researchers from ITS and the College of Education are specifically focusing on the use of online annotation tools that students and faculty can use to share notes with the entire class, according to the Donald A. Rieck Research Grant application written by researchers Sam Van Horne, Kathy Schuh, and Jae-Eun Russell.

"The key thing about e-textbooks now is that publishers and vendors have made more interactive content," Van Horne said. "That is what's interesting to us. They're touted as a boost to student learning, but what we're exploring is do they really do that? And if they do, under what conditions? There is a lot of national interest in those questions."

He said current research about electronic textbooks is mixed. Recent studies have not shown that e-books significantly affect students' performance in their courses, he said, and research is contradictory on whether students prefer print or online textbooks.

Participation in the pilot program will be funded by a $20,000 grant.

Jesse said e-texts could be important in making higher education more affordable.

"I think we all have a concern that textbooks and the way they're sold to students are very expensive," she said. "… Just intuitively, online textbooks should be cheaper."

While this is usually the case, Jesse said, the price differences are still being determined as the industry develops.

Many professors have integrated e-texts into their curricula, and Jesse said the study will explore the extent to which online books are currently used at the UI. She also hopes the program will give ITS a head start in understanding the e-text industry and aiding students and staff in the adoption of new technologies.

Junior engineering student Keyan Zarei said several of his classes last semester offered used e-texts and that while they helped keep his backpack light, he generally prefers to buy hard-copy books he can keep.

"[Online content] is helpful. It's another way of looking at the material, which I'm a huge advocate for," he said. "But it's not really worth it that much, because it's a temporary subscription, and you need to pay extra for it."

But Jesse said she believes e-texts will become much more widespread in the near future.

"There will be a tipping point where it just makes more sense to have things electronically, but I don't know when it is," she said. "I think that everyone who tells you what's going to happen is going to be wrong."

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