One of the most revolutionary things about the Internet is its ability to make physical distances inconsequential. But with students nationwide still reluctant to embrace e-textbooks, the usefulness of the Web in acquiring learning materials remains limited. Especially if you go to college in Alaska.
When the University of Alaska at Fairbanks moved the textbook portion of its bookstore online three semesters ago, university officials thought the move would make it cheaper and easier for students to buy their books. What they did not count on was how much harder it would be for distributors to get students their books in a timely fashion.
“This change is designed to provide students with improved service and lower price options, as well as provide a cost savings for the university,” reads a memo circulated among faculty and staff in November, 2008. The idea was that the university would not need to order surplus books, and the students would not need to trudge to the bookstore and wait in line. Instead, they could just point and click.
But the experiment went awry when the books did not arrive on time at the Fairbanks campus, leaving a number of its 9,300 students in the lurch as classes began. “It just didn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped, initially,” said Marmian Grimes, a campus spokeswoman, citing the university’s location — far from textbook distributors in the lower 48 — as a likely cause for the delays.
The problem persisted in the second semester. This spring, the university finally started stocking textbooks for core classes, such as English 101, to hedge against tardy deliveries.
Now the university is stepping away from the cutting edge. Grimes confirmed that Fairbanks is going to reopen its physical textbook annex beginning in the fall.
Thus ends what appears to have been a relatively innovative effort to leverage college students’ tendency to buy textbooks on the Web. While probably more than 75 percent of colleges now offer an online component to their campus bookstores, very few run online-only stores, says Brian E. Cartier, CEO of the National Association of College Stores — certainly not enough to suggest any trend. Most are prep schools or smaller colleges, he says. Fairbanks, by contrast, is the flagship of Alaska’s university system. Cartier says he has never heard of a college switching to an online bookstore and then switching back.
But he does not take this as an indication that an online-only bookstore would present an unworkable model generally. “My guess would be that it had something to do with the fact that they’re all the way up there,” he says.