COST OF TEXTBOOKS
Physics for Scientist and Engineers, eighth edition
• New: $208.11 (Amazon.com)-$233.74 (Barnes & Noble)
• New paperback: $126.51 (Amazon.com)
• New plus student solutions manuals: $337.29 (Amazon.com)
• Used: $96.50 (One Planet Books)
• Rental: $61.50 for 30 days or $102.49 for 130 days (Barnes & Noble)
• eTextbook: $139.49 for 180 days (Coursesmart.com)
FAST FACTS: Fall 2011
• Four-year students spent $2.6 billion purchasing or renting new and used printed or eTextbooks.
• About one in four students did not purchase at least one new printed textbook.
• Sixteen percent of four-year students, up from 12 percent in 2010, purchased or rented one or more eTextbooks during the fall 2011 semester.
• Among four-year purchasers, the average amount spent for new printed textbooks was $258, 12 percent more compared to $230 for the Fall 2010 semester.
• On average, four-year students spent $83 for the eTextbooks they purchased.
Source: Student Monitor
ETEXTBOOKS VS. OPEN SOURCE BOOKS:
• eTextbook is a digital, downloadable version of a physical textbook you can rent or purchase.
• Open source textbooks are offered online under an open-source license that allows free digital access, low-cost print options and customization by instructors.
Sources: Barnes & Noble, Student Public Interest Research Group
ABOUT OPENSTAX COLLEGE BOOKS
• Will launch first two books in March: physics and sociology. Followed by biology (for major and non-major), anatomy and physiology.
• The e-versions will be available at no charge for students with options to print or download to mobile devices and no expiration date.
• Because of open licensing, faculty can adapt them without permission.
• Platform agnostic, can be used with any mobile device or computer.
• Online: www.openstaxcollege.org
Source: OpenStax College
The rest of the world is moving at fiber-optic speeds, yet textbooks still seem to be more Gutenberg than 4G.
And college students are paying the price. On average nationwide, a student in a four-year college spends about $600 a year on physical textbooks. And some of the higher-priced books for physics or pre-medicine can cost upwards of $300 each.
Yet in some classrooms across the region, there's change afoot. A handful of professors and students are embracing online textbooks -- known as e-textbooks -- praising them for their lower cost, ease of use and portability versus a stack of heavy books.
Amanda Cawley, 24, bought an iPad last year and rented electronic books for all of her classes at Lee University in Cleveland. She spent about $150 on three books when she would have paid three times as much for physical textbooks, she said. Some of her books are about to expire, but she plans to print out what she needs to finish the semester.
"I love it," she said. "If I'm looking for specific information, I don't have to flip through the chapters, I can just type the word in the search field and it takes me there."
A number of obstacles remain to the widespread use of e-textbooks, but some experts say the wider use of electronic readers and the rapid improvement in the availability and quality of open-source textbooks makes it just a matter of time before it takes off. Open-source books are basically textbooks offered at no cost online.
The University System of Georgia has an office dedicated to making open-source resources available to faculty and is working on producing its own U.S. history open-source book.
"Saving students money makes a difference on whether or not they stay in school," said Marie Lasseter, manager of faculty development for the Georgia system.
Tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have increased about 56 percent in the last decade -- beyond the rate of general inflation. The open textbook movement is evolving rapidly, she said, and "it's just going to explode within the next year."
But the trend of buying electronic versions of textbooks has been surprisingly slow in picking up steam, experts say.
"What we've found is that some students don't like to read on a screen for a long period of time," said Eric Weil, managing partner of the national market research firm Student Monitor.
And not all students have electronic readers for e-textbooks, but as their use proliferates, so will the number of students getting books online, experts said.
Last year, Johnny Evans, a physics and chemistry professor at Lee University, asked his students a question: "If you could get an e-book for $30 or $40 a semester versus buying a printed book, what would you prefer?"
All his students said they would buy the electronic version of the book over the printed if the quality was the same, he said.
Alternative and online publishers offer lower-cost and even free versions of some textbooks. But last fall, only about 16 percent of students in four-year colleges rented or bought an e-textbook, according to Student Monitor.
Coursesmart.com has more than 30,000 textbooks that cover 90 percent of the core material used in the college classroom, according to Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of higher education for the Association of American Publishers.
Will Conway, an exercise science major student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said he was spending about $250 a semester on textbooks. This semester, he rented a couple of online books for $150.
"It's much better than carrying around heavy textbooks all the time. I can just carry my iPad and use all of them," he said.
A physics book weighs about six pounds.
But his instructor, Will Stern, who decided to switch to the online book for his basic personal health class, is not convinced.
"There have been pros and cons," he said, noting that the paper copy of the book was $115 while the online book rental was $60.
"The book part is fine, but the quizzes online are not very good at this point," Stern said. "I really want to go online, do more stuff and activities online, but I don't think the technology is quite there."
Open-source textbooks could be a game changer. Not only can instructors adapt the books, but students can read the books online or print what they need.
Thus far, though, the books have received mixed reviews.
Some faculty say it's hard to find quality material, not many people know about them and the number of subjects offered is still limited.
"The key point is: Does the material enable students to learn the subject, pass the class and graduate?" asked Hildebrand. "The reality is that publishers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the very best products to serve an incredibly diverse faculty and student population."
But a new nonprofit publisher, OpenStax College, believes it has the solution.
Fueled by grant money from a number of private foundations, OpenStax, a project of Rice University, will launch in March peer-reviewed physics and sociology books, the first of 20 the company expects to unveil in the next five years. Students can download the books, print PDFs or get a color printed copy for less than $30 or use online versions for free.
The textbooks are open to classes anywhere, and Rice officials believe they could save students $90 million in the next five years if the books capture 10 percent of the national market.
"We wanted to create quality materials that meet the scope and sequence requirements of the syllabus of these courses [and] have them professionally developed," said David Harris, editor in chief of OpenStax College.
Because the books are free, he said, long-term sustainability can come through the print option and partnerships with for-profit businesses that offer services around it, allowing a mission support fee to be added.
Whether OpenStax will really be the push open source textbooks need, "the jury is still out," said Harris.
But Christina Kurpiel, 24, said she would give it a chance.
Kurpiel went back to college to prepare for medical school. Right now she buys most of her books used or borrows older editions from friends, but if she was given the option of a quality open-source textbook, she would jump at the chance, she said.
"I would love that," she said. "I would definitely be willing to try it. It's a way to take away some of the cost [of college]."