How students, faculty, bookstores adapt to digital textbook model

Samantha Ye

As more professors turn to the convenience of the access code textbooks, students and bookstores are finding new options for affordability.

According to Colorado State University Bookstore data, 50 lower-level courses, covering 16,297 students, had digital materials listed on the Bookstore’s inclusive access program this spring. In comparison, there are 45 higher-level courses with digital materials, covering only 6,250 students.

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These digital materials can only be accessed through codes students must purchase through the publisher in order to view and submit assignments.

E-books may have physical options at a higher price, but the assignments can only be completed through the online platform, making it nearly impossible to pass the class without it.

Digital materials have been known to be cheaper, or even free. Yet prices remain high with many homework and e-book bundles topping over $100, according to The Atlantic, despite students’ access expiring after a set time limit. The New York Times writes that access codes eliminate students’ cost-cutting options like sharing, reusing or reselling books, leaving them with basically no cheaper options.

So, college bookstores are starting to come at the costs from a different angle.

For the last few years, the CSU Bookstore has been expanding Verba, an inclusive access program which allows students to purchase access to the e-books and homework assignments directly through the Bookstore, no access code needed.

Through negotiations with publishers, the cost of buying through inclusive access is always cheaper than buying from the publisher, said Kurt Kaiser, assistant director of textbooks for the Bookstore.

“(Publishers) understand that we have access to charge student accounts; we are the frontline for questions with students and faculty,” Kaiser said. “They know it’s in their best interest to make the prices go down as well.”

Inclusive access also cuts the costs of printing, shipping and stocking the physical codes.

Through inclusive access, the average cost of an e-book is $50.35, a homework platform is $47.34 and a bundle of both is $92.90. Compared to a physical book with a code included, the average savings is $91.82, according to the Bookstore’s database. Over the previous three semesters, those savings have totaled over $3.4 million.

CSU Inclusive Access Digital Material Distribution
Type of digital material Courses Sections Average Cost
e-book only 41 171 $50.35
homework only 16 61 $47.34
homework with e-book 62 183 $92.90

 

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The majority of courses (52.1 percent) require bundles, followed by e-books only (34.5 percent) and homework only (13.4 percent).

Students are more flexible in not buying e-books, with 11 percent opting out of the Verba program this spring, whereas 96 percent bought homework access.

The Bookstore will be showing these numbers to faculty to demonstrate how going through inclusive access can save students money, and to try to expand the program’s reach.

Kaiser said this program will be a way to save students money while benefiting them academically. 

I taught a Principles of Micro one semester here, and I had 180 students and two TAs. If there was no online platform, I don’t even know how you would teach a class that large.” -Thomas Briggs, CSU economics professor

In his roughly five years of teaching, CSU economics professor Thomas Briggs has only ever used online textbooks and homework platforms.

Through textbook publishers’ online course systems, which typically bundle an e-book with associated practice questions, Briggs edits, assigns and collects weekly homework and quizzes composed of those provided questions.

The way all of Briggs’ courses depend on an online component is similar to most others in his department. It’s no surprise courses are heading this direction, Briggs said. Instructors save hours by not having to create or source their own practice problems or grade assignments by hand.

“Now that we’ve kind of gotten used to the online, I think going back would be detrimental to a lot of the instructors,” Briggs said.

Grading paper assignments is almost unrealistic now with certain class sizes. Even making or sourcing original practice problems is a significant time barrier, Briggs said. 

Becca Huggard, senior human development and family sciences major, said she personally prefers a physical book which she can take notes on or mark pages.

“I think I absorb it better—the information—from an actual book rather than reading it on a screen,” Huggard said.

For senior computer science major Farhan Haziq, the usefulness of online homework depends on the platform. Digital assignments in his computer science classes are more flexible whereas the platform ALEKS, an adaptive learning program,  is “not intuitive at all.”

And while Faziq said he likes the physical book, the final choice “comes down to costs.” 

For professors, the digital transition is ultimately about convenience. If professors didn’t have the convenience of publisher-made and graded assignments, Briggs said students would probably see fewer quizzes and smaller classes.

“I taught a Principles of Micro one semester here, and I had 180 students and two TAs,” Briggs said. “If there was no online platform, I don’t even know how you would teach a class that large.”

While online systems are convenient for instructors, Briggs said he wonders about the impact on the quality of learning.

“When students had to sit down and write down a problem set, I think you understand it more,” Briggs said. “It’s almost like writing notes versus reading notes … Now that piece is starting to fade away, and I wonder what’s going to happen to the efficacy of our lectures.”

Over 22,000 students are listed as using inclusive access materials this semester. Although not a huge slice of the 6,000 courses the Bookstore provides material for, inclusive access has grown nearly 300 percent since 2017 with 30 percent of their textbook sales coming through Verba.

Kaiser said growth has mainly been driven by large, multi-section courses like General Psychology joining the program.

The program has been a learning curve for all textbook stakeholders, including faculty and publishers, Kaiser said, but everyone has been open to it.

“It’s kind of neat because for 30 years textbooks departments never changed; we were always the same thing,” Kaiser said. “We’re now having to innovate how to get students the materials, and it’s driving some really neat ideas.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.