The fall semester is upon us, and that means one thing: It’s pilot (project) season for textbooks and their e-alternatives.
Most students are stepping into their first class either this week or the next, and many of them will find themselves participating in their institution’s latest cost-saving experiment. In the name of student savings, institutions are testing everything from all-tablet learning to textbook rentals to open educational resources (OER) -- though similar projects delivered mixed results last year.
This year’s experiments are not markedly different than those of previous years, but institutions are launching new pilot projects with “tremendous forward momentum,” said Nicole Allen, OER director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which promotes open-source alternatives in scholarly research.
“Semester after semester, students are facing higher and higher prices of textbooks,” Allen said. “There’s frustration with the fact that the current system for publishing textbooks puts up legal barriers, which is counter to what the Internet has to offer. The idea of a framework like open educational resources that makes that information available free is really appealing and in many ways common sense.”
Put on notice by the president and pressured by cost-conscious families to make higher education more affordable, many institutions spy an opportunity to respond to the charge by curbing the cost of textbooks and other educational materials, although not necessarily with open resources. Common strategies include allowing students rent textbooks for a semester  or pushing bookbag-friendly e-textbooks . Yet other institutions are launching more ambitious projects, like Lynn University’s investment in hundreds of iPad minis for its incoming freshmen , which shifts part of the cost from the student to the university.
Lynn hosted the third and final presidential debate last October, and has taken advantage of a massive upgrade to its wireless infrastructure that was required to accommodate the campaign media circus. Faculty members have for months tinkered with laptops and tablets to familiarize themselves with the iOS platform, and this fall, the university will offer nine introductory courses through Apple’s digital course manager, iTunes U.
“Essentially, our goal is to get rid of all textbooks in our core curriculum,” said Chris Boniforti, the university’s chief information officer. “Without getting myself in too much trouble, I’d like for that to happen next year.”
Given Apple’s tendency to update its tablets about once a year, Boniforti said students will be able to upgrade to the newest model once their iPad has turned two years old. Upperclassmen interested in the courses can also rent an iPad for $100 -- less than the cost of the textbook. If a student breaks the iPad, whether by accident or not, the university will repair it and issue a rental in the meantime. That’s a lot of iPads, Boniforti acknowledged.
“We’re not necessarily making all our money back,” Boniforti said. That means students may see their technology fee go up, but there is a silver lining: If faculty members are successful in converting the core curriculum to iTunes U, Boniforti said students will save about $1,000.
As past experiments have shown, however, it can be risky for universities to absorb the costs of a new pilot project. Three years ago, Western Governors University folded the cost of academic materials into the cost of tuition, but after partnering with e-textbook retailer CourseSmart  to deliver digital texts, administrators realized that without raising tuition, the model was unsustainable. When students merely glanced at the first page of a book, CourseSmart billed the university.
“You can imagine we became very price-sensitive,” said Steve Klingler, vice president of student experience. “What we really wanted to do was make these materials available when [students] needed them and not require the students to second guess themselves.” (Via e-mail, a CourseSmart spokeswoman noted that publishers set the terms of CourseSmart's deals with institutions, and said that the company provides "flexible pricing models" that are being used successfully at many colleges and universities.)
A year after signing the agreement with CourseSmart, WGU migrated its electronic resources to the delivery platform VitalSource, simultaneously negotiating a more lenient set of deals with textbook publishers. The new terms in some cases made payment contingent on course completion or allowed students to read part of the digital text free of charge.
“I think students would benefit if more institutions would leverage their buying power to get a better price,” Klingler said. Despite the initial stumble, he pointed out that the university was able to secure a better deal without asking its students to dig a little deeper. Today, students pay about one-third less for course materials than they did 18 months ago.
While both Lynn and WGU’s pilot projects involve corporate partners, some of last year’s most successful ventures began at institutions experimenting with open-source textbooks, such as Rice University’s OpenStax College, a nonprofit publisher , and the University of Minnesota’s open textbook catalog .
OpenStax College has published four open textbooks since last December, a number that director Richard Baraniuk said will rise to 11 within the next year. He estimated the 42,000 students who have so far opted for the free textbooks have saved about $4.2 million in total.
“From a philanthropic return on investment perspective, where we take philanthropic dollars to write the books and return the investment in student savings, we’re already returning the investment in the first year,” Baraniuk said.
Researchers at Minnesota chose a different approach, awarding professors a $500 stipend for every open-source textbook they reviewed. In less than 18 months, analytics show, the database has attracted visitors from 172 different countries.
“The catalog has really blossomed into a real understanding of the barriers to open textbook adoption,” namely access and quality, said David Ernst, director of academic and information technology in the College of Education and Human Development. “For just a few thousand dollars of investment, we’ve saved students potentially $100,000 or so.”
As long as the cost of higher education continues to be scrutinized, that’s how many of the pilot projects will be evaluated -- in savings in dollars and cents.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of experiments -- a lot of them will fail, but some will be successful,” Baraniuk said. “My biggest piece of advice would be to work toward projects and initiatives that focus on student learning as the ultimate outcome, and not some of the other goals that people might be pursuing.”