E-Textbooks 101

New guidebook from Indiana University provides schools with a roadmap for incorporating e-textbooks into their curricula effectively.
E-Textbooks 101

AS THE COST OF printed textbooks continues to rise, more universities are adopting electronic textbooks as a way to make higher education more affordable for their students. One school that has gone all in on digital textbooks is Indiana University in Bloomington, which began deploying digital textbooks to its students in a pilot program in 2009. Its eText program was expanded to all IU campuses in spring 2012.

By 2017, more than 61,000 students— about 53 percent of IU’s students across eight campuses—had used at least one eText. IU eTexts are supported by the Unizin Engage e-reading platform, which is integrated into the university’s Canvas learning management system.

After years of fielding questions about e-book deployment from educators at other institutions, IU has decided to share what it has learned over the last decade in a more formal format. It has released eTexts 101: A Practical Guide, a free e-book that presents lessons learned and best practices for digital textbook deployment.

The guidebook features short chapters by authors who have participated in the eText program or have helped roll out digital course initiatives. These authors include not only IU faculty, but also publishers and colleagues from other institutions—such as Ohio State, Oregon State, and the University of Minnesota—that are addressing the cost of textbooks on their own campuses.

Below are six of the guidebook’s recommendations, in brief:

Socialize the initiative. To overcome resistance from faculty who are accustomed to using printed resources, schools should share details about their e-textbook adoption across multiple channels, from faculty committee meetings to social media networks. Clear and ongoing communication will help the community understand both the reasons behind the initiative and the fact that the adoption of digital textbooks “represents a cultural change.”

Assign a course coordinator. Because of the rapidly shifting dynamics of ordering large numbers of digital textbooks, IU recommends that schools hire a course coordinator to keep the process organized and serve as a central point of contact for publishers, faculty, and other members of the school community. The book offers a list of potential duties for this position, as well as how much time might be allotted to different tasks.

Set an “order window.” Schools should set a window of time when faculty will explore available titles and finalize their digital textbook orders. This window should start several weeks before students first register for courses each term to give them time to learn which courses use digital textbooks (which are most likely included in a course fee). IU recommends setting a “soft” close date for faculty to order texts—such as the day before registration begins—and a “hard” close date, the last day the institution can add digital textbooks for the term. Schools also should anticipate scenarios in which some faculty will make last-minute orders after the hard close date—for example, when a department adds a section to an over-enrolled course.

Create a webpage of instructions. This page should include a description of the initiative and its benefits; an outline of best practices for teaching with digital texts; order window and late order instructions; a list of course coordinators; and troubleshooting tips.

Develop an “opt-out” policy. Some students will have reasons for wanting to use printed materials, so IU shares its own opt-out policy. The authors note that such policies should be well-thought-out and clearly outline to students what they will miss if they forgo digital texts. However, each opt-out request should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Don’t forget accessibility. Although more publishers are creating “born accessible” e-textbooks—in other words, texts appropriate for students with a range of disabilities—not all digital texts are available in universally accessible formats. For that reason, IU requests PDFs of e-textbooks from publishers, so that its media staff can convert textbook formats for students with learning disabilities or visual or hearing impairments.

The school reports that its eText initiative has saved its students more than US$16 million. Several faculty members are now preparing a self-guided online professional development module to help other faculty grow more comfortable teaching with eTexts, and an online orientation module to prepare students to use eTexts effectively.

Says Stacy Morrone, IU associate vice president of learning technologies and an eText 101 contributor, “With this e-book, we can easily and broadly share our lessons learned and processes with anyone who’s interested, and we are happy to do so.”

The e-book can be downloaded at etexts101.iu.edu.