UW-Madison and four other major universities announced plans this week to try buying electronic textbooks in bulk, an experiment that officials say could help rein in burdensome textbook costs and bring e-textbooks into the mainstream.
The university will try it on a small scale at first, in five courses involving about 600 students when the spring semester begins Monday.
At UW-Madison, students will spend an average of about $1,140 on books and supplies this year, up from $680 in 2001-2002.
"That's one of the big motivators behind doing this pilot and evaluating this more broadly, for wider adoption by the Madison campus," said Brian Rust, communications director for the UW-Madison Division of Information Technology. "We're hoping it will not only make texts more accessible in terms of being on a number of different devices, but also more accessible financially."
Rust said the pilot program will cost UW-Madison about $20,000.
The pilot is led by Internet2, a higher education research network, and will allow the universities to pool their buying power and theoretically negotiate discounted prices from the textbook companies. The others schools University of California at Berkeley, University of Virginia, Cornell University and University of Minnesota.
During the pilot, students will be able to download the books for free using software called Courseload. They will be able to access the books from any device with an Internet browser.
In the future, students might pay a course-materials fee to the university, but likely at a cheaper price than the cost of print textbooks, Rust said.
McGraw-Hill is currently the only textbook provider involved in the project.
Students in Felix Elwert's course Sociology 120: Marriage and Family, normally spend $116 for a new copy of the course's primary textbook, "Public and Private Families," by Andrew Cherlin. A used copy goes for about $76, he said.
"Let's be realistic, that's a huge amount of money," he said.
But there are still questions about whether e-textbooks are actually less expensive than their print counterparts and how long students would continue to have access to their texts after the course is over.
A Daytona State College study this year found that some students who purchased e-textbooks only saved $1 compared to those who bought printed material.
Elwert said he thinks the e-textbooks have great potential because students can make notes and share them with other people in class, including professors.
But he's also concerned about what happens to the students' notes after the class is over. In the pilot, students would continue to have access to the content through the summer but it's unclear what will happen after that.
"So is the idea is that your college readings no longer matter after you graduate from college?" Elwert asked. "I don't think so. Or, at least I hope not."
Editor's note: In the original version of this story, Ohio State was included as one of the universities in the e-textbook pilot program. However, Ohio State has since dropped out of the program. The current version reflects this change.