Many colleges are experimenting with e-textbooks these days . But at Northwest Missouri State University, President Dean L. Hubbard hopes they’ll be an e-book only campus (or close to it) soon -- as soon as the market will allow it. “We’ll move as fast as the industry moves and they’re moving very rapidly,” Hubbard says.
Northwest Missouri has long bought textbooks on its students’ behalf, renting them in exchange for a $6 per credit hour fee. The university is now piloting a move away from purchasing the paper kind. This spring, the 6,700-student university bought e-books for about 500 students in 10 different courses -- including College Algebra, Intercultural Communications, and the Enjoyment of Music. In addition, McGraw-Hill is making digital access codes available to up to 3,000 more Northwest Missouri students who are using texts available in both formats.
The pilot actually began, on a smaller scale, this fall, when the university experimented with e-books and, specifically, the Sony PRS-505 e-reader model -- ultimately determining that the Sony model "was not necessarily designed for what we want to do,” says Paul Klute, the assistant to the president. So this spring, students will primarily use their laptop computers, already provided to them by the institution, to read the e-books (although a smaller group of students will test out a newer version of the Sony e-reader, Klute explains).
Klute says print will probably always have some place at Northwest Missouri; for example, in the case of an older textbook that is considered definitive in a field. Still, print would be the exception, not the rule. In making this shift, university officials cite a desire to cut costs, and to be "on the cutting edge" of trends in learning and technology.
Citing the e-book's built-in interactivity, "I'm convinced," says Hubbard, "that students will read more and they will learn more, by using this medium."
The proposal to go (almost) e-book only does raise some questions, however -- including what the renters, i.e. students, will think. The university will be surveying students throughout the spring, but data from last fall suggest split opinion. "Our quantitative feedback suggested to us that about 50 percent of our students like the idea of electronic textbooks and 50 percent don't," Klute says.
He adds: "I do think that we'll see that 50 percent that don't like e-textbooks shift as they become exposed to the electronic textbooks."
"That's just a hypothesis of mine and one that we hope to realize as the project moves forward."
"I think there's a lot of interest, and I think a generally supportive attitude certainly among the members of the faculty that I visited with," says Doug Sudhoff, the Faculty Senate president and an assistant professor of mass communication. "There may be some faculty who will have a really hard time letting go of the traditional textbook. That's true anywhere. But I think, in general, as we see the results of the pilot project and if those results are positive, I think you'll see that faculty move pretty quickly to adapt their courses to online textbooks and adopt them for their courses."
President Hubbard also cites a hoped-for cost-savings of at least 50 percent. And that raises some questions given the college's current rental model: While e-books are cheaper, on average available at half the price of the printed version, the university currently replaces rental textbooks on three-year cycles -- getting three years' use out of a single bound book. By contrast, consumers typically buy timed subscriptions for the half-price e-books: 180 days for books to be used in semester courses, or 360 for those used year-long.
"We would have to better understand how our rental model would work with the current system of distributing e-textbooks," Klute says.
"We haven't made a deal yet, we're still piloting it," explains Hubbard. "But we've been very candid with the publishers that we are not going to spend any more than we're currently spending and we would expect over time to spend less."
That's a reasonable expectation, says Frank Lyman, executive vice president at CourseSmart , a digital textbook company started by five major textbook publishers. "It's a reasonable expectation that an institution pursuing digital aggressively should be able to save money for themselves and their students. Having not been involved with Northwest Missouri, I don't know what the dynamic is there," Lyman says.
Lyman says that with 5,029 textbooks now availability digitally, CourseSmart covers about 30 percent of the market. "For institutions that are going to be aggressive about pursuing this goal" -- of being all e-textbook -- "I think the opportunity exists for them to have 50, 60, 75 percent of their titles covered by e-textbooks within the next year."
He adds that a few for-profit colleges have already moved to e-book only in certain curriculum areas. "As with a lot of things, the non-profit colleges and universities are trying to see if there's something they can learn from the way the for-profits operate," Lyman says.
CourseSmart reports  that 72 percent of their customers say they would buy some or all of their textbooks in electronic format in the future. Likewise, "Our research shows that a very high percentage of students who actually use these digital textbooks have a positive experience. Most recommend it to their friends," says Jeff Ho, a product manager at McGraw-Hill, one of five publishers that Northwest Missouri is working with.
However, an August report  by the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that 75 percent of students surveyed said they'd prefer a printed textbook to a digital one. Thirty-three percent said they felt comfortable reading on a computer screen, 22 percent were uncomfortable and 45 percent were in the middle.
"It's a sentiment shared among a lot of educators that it's the 21st century; we should be using computers for all of education. As we wrote in the report, to some extent it's true," says Nicole Allen, the report author and the textbook advocate for Student PIRGs. "We've just got to remember that reading a Facebook profile is not the same thing as reading a textbook."
"Textbooks are necessarily disconnected from students' needs as consumers, because textbook sales are not driven by students; they're driven by faculty," she says. "It's important to remember that the consumer actually does have needs and desires and the students do have preferences as to whether they want to switch to a digital book or a print book, and they're different. The best thing is to give students options, and a lot of them can make that determination themselves. I'm not saying that switching to e-books is wrong. I'm not an educator; I don't know. But I represent students' needs as consumers and you can't rely on the market to address those needs."
In an e-mail, Abby Freeman, Northwest Missouri's Student Senate president, expressed support for the university's ongoing pilot.
"I think it demonstrates that NW is continually searching for methods to improve our university and the educational setting for the students. Though the original use intended for the [Sony] e-readers may not be the best option for the students of Northwest, the continued piloting and research into the programs and their benefit is great. I think students enjoy exploring new opportunities in their classrooms and discovering if those options are a benefit to the university."