UT Holding Out For The Next Wave In Cheaper Textbooks

It was a noble experiment, e-books at UT. An attempt to float with the rising tide of technology — and to save students money.

But the results are in vice president and CFO Kevin Hegarty‘s hands — and students who tried pdf-style, downloadable books on disc during the past two semesters didn’t like them, he says. 

“This enriched pdf file way of reading, they didn’t find it very enriching,” Hegarty says. “We don’t want to keep beating a dead horse. Pdf books don’t work.”

Using $200,000 from the president’s discretionary fund, Hegarty had conducted an “E-Book Experiment” with Wiley Publishing.

Last spring, and again in the fall, more than 1,000 students in several courses like engineering and math were provided digital textbooks by the University, and at no cost to them. These books had nifty electronic capabilities, like highlighting, typing in notes, and searching for keywords.

The students were also given the option to have black-and-white photocopies of the full texts made and bound with plastic if still they wanted something touchable. (Read the Alcalde write-up of the experiment from the Jan/Feb ’09 issue here.)

Almost all the students loved the low-cost/no-cost aspect of the experiment, Hegarty says. But 42 percent of fall participants said they weren’t satisfied with the e-books they were given. About 35 percent were satisfied, and 23 percent were neutral. Nearly half still bought a printed copy of the books, proving that even this Internet generation likes to turn pages.

Students’ biggest complaint about the e-books was that they could access them on only one machine. Between iPhones, laptops, and home computers, “students don’t live and die by one device,” Hegarty says. 

The textbook industry is moving toward Web-based materials, he believes. And so he says UT, in this time of tight budgets, is likely to let the market shake itself out before investing in any more e-book experiments.


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