University students on the lookout for cheaper textbooks may find their answer in a University committee seeking to put books online.

The E-Textbook Working Group was formed last spring to investigate ways to apply e-book technology in University classrooms. The group — which is comprised of representatives from the University Library, the Office of the Registrar, Information and Technology Services and Instructional Support Services — began conducting a pilot program this semester to test electronic textbooks in five University courses.

As part of the pilot study, students in the five classes — including an English course on professional writing and two College of Engineering classes — access their textbooks on CTools through an e-textbooks provider called CourseSmart.

Seventy-six percent of University students involved in the study are undergraduates, according to Susan Hollar, curriculum integration coordinator at the University Library.

Hollar, who chairs the working group, said textbooks on CourseSmart are 50 to 60 percent cheaper than their print counterparts. However, students enrolled in the five test classes this semester didn’t have to worry about paying for course materials since the University covered the cost of their e-books.

Scott Campbell, an associate professor of Urban Planning and the coordinator of doctoral planning studies at the University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, teaches a course in the trial program. He said he appreciates the effort to get textbooks online.

“The more they are available online the better,” Campbell said, emphasizing the reduced cost as a key incentive to use electronic materials.

But Campbell said that not all the textbooks he needed for his course were available online.

“I submitted a list of maybe nine or 10 texts, and a few weeks later, the library came back to me and said … two were available,” he said.

Rackham student Sylvia Harris, who is taking Campbell’s course, said she liked the expediency of getting her textbooks online.

“At the beginning of the semester, when everybody is getting organized and trying to figure out which books they need to buy, we can jump right into the reading material,” Harris said.

School of Information graduate student Debbie Blumenthal, who is also taking a course in the pilot program, said one of the perks of using online textbooks is not having to carry around so many books.

“You can go on any computer that has web access or even any wireless device and do your reading,” Blumenthal said.

But Harris pointed out it’s a problem when instructors don’t allow laptops in classes that require electronic textbooks.

“It’s just hypocritical to say we’re in a paperless world, but we are not going to use the vehicle that you use to look at the reading material in class,” she said.

Additionally, the University program allows students to highlight passages of the text or take notes directly in the software. But the online technology isn’t without some concerns.

Jyoti Mazumder, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University who teaches a course participating in the program, said his students “have lots of complaints” about the platform.

“It’s very user-unfriendly,” Mazumder said. “It takes several clicks to get to the information you need, (and students) can only download one page at a time. So far students are not very happy with it.”

Blumenthal expressed similar frustrations with the online textbooks.

“There (are) certain features that don’t work,” she said. “It’s convenient, but it definitely needs work. It could be better.”

According to Hollar, the working group surveyed the students and instructors last month to get their general perceptions on the project. More in-depth surveys and focus groups will be conducted next month to hear about their experiences, she said.

“I’m sure that there are going to be ways this tool can be improved, and we’re hoping that when we will get the student feedbacks, that will give us guidance on how this tool can be improved,” Haller said.

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