Online textbooks not on students’ bestseller list

By Linda Conner Lambeck, STAFF WRITER, CT Post

Mary Ellen O’Sullivan’s students had a choice. The class at Housaton­ic Community College in Bridgeport could buy a $29 access code to give them use of an online textbook to meet the requirements of their Psych 101 class or, for $59.20, they could buy the access code plus a loose-leaf binder containing chapters of the sixth edition of Psychology Core Concepts, the book they would use during the semes­ter long course.

But when O’Sullivan asked her students during the second week of class how many had purchased just the access to the digital version of the text, not one hand was raised. It was the same response she got from students at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where she teaches two cours­es, Psychology 101 and Infant and Child Psychology.


As much as Kindles and iPad and online versions of printed text are trying to wrestle their way into col­lege classrooms as the more convenient and economical alternative to high-priced college texts, students don’t appear ready to bite. “What if the Internet crashes?” said Jamie Pa­rana, 23, a freshman from Derby. “What if I leave my book at home? I think there are reasons to have both.” In a freshman economics class 90 minutes away at the University of Connecticut’s main campus at Storrs, there are 141 students who all had the option to buy just the $55 online version of their eco­nomics text or both the on­line text and the customized paper edition of the test for $91.75.

When Richard Langlois, the professor who teaches the class, asked who went for the cheaper online option on­ly, 40 raised their hand.

He’s been told about one­ third of students who initial­ly buy the online text only later go back and upgrade to a paper version as well.

Page for page, the online text and paper text are the same.

Students, it seems, are looking for the best of both worlds. Few see the logic, yet anyway, of adding a Kindle, iPad or some other kind of electronic text-reading de­vice to a book bag already crammed with a laptop, smart phone and iPod.

Eric Weil, a managing partner with Student Moni­tor, a group that tracks ev­erything about college stu­dents, found that only 2 per­cent of full-time undergrads purchased electronic text­books last fall. Digital texts account for 6 percent of a student’s text­book budget. With just un­der 7 million full-time un­dergrads nationwide, about 150,000 have warmed up to e-books.

“We expect that to in­crease dramatically” as the number of titles available increase and gadgets like Ap­ple’s new iPad become wide­ly available, said Weil.


Introduced last month, iPads will hit the market in late March. Still, with technology changing so fast, some worry today’s e-reader could be­come the eight-track tape player or video cassette re­corder of tomorrow.

Brinley Franklin, UCo­nn’s vice provost for univer­sity libraries, said the tech­nology improves with each new reading device. According to him, stu­dents are waiting for the price to come down, while textbook publishers are wait­ing for assurances that their online material won’t go the way of online music, free to anyone who wants to share or copy it. “To a certain extent, I don’t think textbook publish­ers are ready to jump in with both feet until they figure out how to control the eco­nomics of it,” Franklin said.

Beyond professors like O’Sullivan and Langlois, who incorporate an online text into their instruction, there are many more oppor­tunities for students to buy a digital version of whatever textbook is assigned.

Frank Lyman, execu­tive vice president of Cours­eSmart, a company estab­lished by the textbook indus­try to create digital copies of textbooks, said there are now 9,200 titles available, representing the most popu­lar textbooks on the market.

“I couldn’t say that two years ago. That’s a big change,” said Lyman.

Still, he called the mar­ket an inch thick and a mile wide because up until a year ago, a student who had a good experience with a digi­tal text often couldn’t find a digital version of the next book they needed. Now, many more digital texts are available to anyone with a laptop. The purchaser buys ac­cess to the book for a specific length of time.

In essence, the student is buying a subscription that is one to three semesters in length.

What devices like an iPad will do, said Lyman, is cap­ture the imagination of stu­dents who want to leave the laptop in their room.“If they can save enough buying digi­tal texts it will justify the cost of the iPad,” he said.

The price for an iPad will start at $499. On average, dig­ital texts are half the price of the printed versions.


With digital texts, stu­dents get the latest edition available every time. What they lose is the ability to get a used edition someone has already gone to the trouble of highlighting. They also can’t resell it. UConn’s Langlois said the online text not only saves students money, but the col­lege saves as well.

By using an online text that offers the feature of completing homework as­signments and taking tests online, Langlois has an elec­tronic substitute for a teach­ing assistant.

That is welcome savings for the school, given budget cuts and fewer grad students who used to fill the teaching assistant role.

Most college libraries have access to thousands of digital books — not just text­books.

Fairfield University’s library offers more than 100,000 e-books. UConn’s li­brary does too and also re­cently purchased five Kin­dles, said Franklin.

The devices are checked out all the time.

At Housatonic, O’Sullivan said new technology eventu­ally wins over most students. For every student who com­plains on a course evaluation about studying online, there are others, she said, who like the online flash card feature or ability to see simulations online. In her Infant and Child course at Southern, students take charge of and raise a virtual child on line. As she leads students through the website where they file homework assign­ments, check for announce­ments and access research material, O’Sullivan shows them how to highlight the text, bookmark pages and click on words to look up meanings. No more consulting the glossary in back of book.

Joey Diaz, a freshman from Bridgeport, said he likes digital readers, but will stick with both for now.