Posted 6/8/2010 5:13 PM | Steve Kolowich
E-textbooks might be the most-talked about and least-used learning tools in traditional higher education. Campus libraries and e-reader manufacturers are betting on electronic learning materials to overtake traditional textbooks in the foreseeable future, but very few students at traditional institutions are currently using e-textbooks, according to recent surveys.
Not so in the world of for-profit online education. Online for-profits such as American Public University System and the University of Phoenix have for years strategically steered students toward e-textbooks in an attempt to shave costs and ensure a more reliable delivery method that, in the context of online education, might seem to make more sense. At Kaplan University's law school, digital texts account for around 80% of assigned reading. At Capella University, e-textbooks are an available and accepted option in nearly all 1,250 courses. In for-profit higher education, more than any other sector, the traditional book is becoming obsolete.
The American Public University System — which is a private, for-profit university, despite its name — has also been consciously promoting the use of e-textbooks, resulting in widespread adoption of the new format among students. Of the company's 400 fully online courses, about 300 assign e-textbooks as the default delivery method .... . While the institution allows stateside students the option of buying print books, more than 90% of students opt for the e-textbook, says Fred Stielow, dean of libraries.
Those are staggering adoption rates compared to those at nonprofit online programs and on traditional campuses. [snip]
One reason American Public University System students have adopted e-textbooks so enthusiastically might be because of the company's unusual practice of including course materials such as books in the cost of tuition. [snip]
For-profit institutions in general are moving toward wider e-textbook use than other sectors of higher education, Stielow says. [snip]
Why is that?
John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, which studies online learning, posits that it might be a function of the more centralized administrative structures at for-profit institutions. [snip]
It is more difficult to engineer change at such scale at nonprofits, because of their more distributed governance models. At those colleges, faculty control of curricular texts — including mode of delivery — is "sacred," Bourne says.
The wide adoption of e-textbooks has also allowed the University of Phoenix to reduce the price it pays for licensing rights to e-textbook material from publishers. "In return for predictable revenue stream, the publishers can generally give best-in-class pricing on digital textbooks and material," says Bickford. [snip]
So switching to e-textbooks seems to be a prudent financial and logistical move. But is it a good educational one? The jury appears to be out on that question. At APUS, Stielow says an internal survey last year revealed that 90% of students opted for the free e-textbooks in the courses where they were assigned. [snip]
At Phoenix and Kaplan University, officials insist that internal research of e-textbook use has revealed that learning outcomes do not suffer as a result of switching from print texts to digital versions, although both declined to share specific data on proprietary grounds.