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Expansion of e-books could equate to student savings

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Florida universities are taking the first steps toward expanding the use of electronic textbooks and other material, hoping to bring significant savings to students who spend hundreds of dollars each semester on traditional textbooks.

The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, approved a 2018-19 budget request this week that includes a $656,000 program to encourage the greater use of so-called “eTexts” and other open educational resources in lieu of the standard textbooks.

It may take some time to replicate the experience of the University of Indiana, a leader in the use of eTexts, with IU reporting last spring that its students saved an estimated $3.5 million in the 2016-17 academic year by using eTexts in place of textbooks.

But Joseph Glover, provost at the University of Florida, who is part of a group coordinating innovation and online programs among the universities, said the expanded use of eTexts and other open-source material “is a great opportunity for really substantial savings for our students.”

Glover said the Indiana experience “demonstrates that with a solid program and a sustained effort promoting the adoption, that over the course of a decade, you are going to end up saving the students literally millions of dollars per year.”

In a survey of 22,000 students at Florida’s 12 universities and 28 state colleges, the Florida Virtual Campus reported 53 percent of the students spent more than $300 in the spring 2016 semester on textbooks, with about 18 percent reporting they spent more than $500.

Faced with those costs, students have found other ways to deal with the financial burden, including buying used textbooks and renting textbooks.

And Jennifer Smith, director of the UF Office of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence, said individual universities have already embarked on pilot programs aimed at cutting textbook costs.

At UF, she said the school negotiated a 43 percent discount off book publishers’ list prices for textbooks used in 79 freshman-level courses last fall. The discount saved the students an estimated $941,000, Smith said.

At Florida State University, an “alternative textbook” program will save students some $41,000 over the course of this academic year, Smith said.

“When we can populate this across the entire (system) and expand these programs, I think we will see significant savings with actually a relatively low outlay of costs,” Smith told the BOG’s Innovation and Online Committee at a meeting in Gainesville Wednesday.

The budget proposal would set aside $656,000 to create a “catalog” where professors and other instructors, as they are developing their courses, will find open-source material as well as eTexts where lower prices have been negotiated with the publishers, Glover said.

He also said a review process will be set up to assure the materials in the catalog are “high quality” and meet the universities’ educational standards.

“This is important because a problem in the past has been that resources available in the system repository have been of a mixed quality, which the faculty found frustrating and which caused them not to use it as much,” Glover said.

Glover said students will have the option of using the eTexts and other material or sticking with their traditional textbooks. But he said one advantage of the electronic material is that a system will be set up where students will pay for the access and have the eTexts available on the first day of their classes.

He also said the universities were looking a providing some type of “financial incentive” for instructors to use the alternative textbooks, but nothing has been finalized.

Ed Morton, a Board of Governors member, said he supported the efforts to decrease textbooks costs for the students.

“The cost of textbooks is a barrier for our students just like room and board,” Morton said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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