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Cost, Convenience Drive Shift to Digital Textbooks

UML Librarians Help Students Save with Free and Low-cost Options

A student works with her laptop Photo by Liron Asher
A growing number of UML faculty members are switching from traditional textbooks to e-books, saving students money while also providing them greater flexibility.

07/06/2020
By Ed Brennen

Back when she was a student at UMass Lowell, Assist. Teaching Prof. Yahayra Michel ’07 ’09 would make a beeline to the campus bookstore at the start of each semester to grab used textbooks for her courses.

“I was a first-generation student, and textbook cost was a concern,” says Michel, who bought quite a few textbooks en route to dual bachelor’s degrees in psychology and criminal justice and a master’s degree in criminology and justice studies.  

Now that she’s a faculty member in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, Michel can empathize with students who have trouble paying for textbooks — a plight that’s been magnified by financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cost is part of my decision-making process when choosing any textbook,” says Michel, who is among a growing number of UML faculty members switching to free or low-cost digital textbooks, or e-books, for their courses.

Encouraging faculty to use e-books is the latest in a series of steps UML is taking to help students save money and keep them in school. The effort includes a new textbook ordering system that launched last year. 

A student reads from a tablet while sitting on a benchPhoto by Liron Asher
A student on North Campus reads from his digital tablet, one of several ways that e-books can be accessed online.

The move is part of a national trend. According to an annual survey of college students by the National Association of College Stores, students spent an average of $413 on textbooks and course materials in the 2019-20 academic year, which is a 41 percent drop from 2007-08. Twenty-six percent of students surveyed said they downloaded free materials online this spring (twice as many as in spring 2019), and one in every five paid materials was digital.

Besides saving students money, e-books are easier to access — which is an important factor as schools increase virtual learning options to limit personal contact on campus this fall.  

Nisarg Jhaveri, a rising junior in the Manning School of Business, hasn’t used a traditional textbook since high school. 

“And I am not going to, given the choice,” says Jhaveri, who finds the best thing about e-books is that many of them are connected to Blackboard, the university’s learning management system.

“If my laptop’s battery is running low, I can borrow a Chromebook from the library and still use the resource,” says Jhaveri, who also prefers not to lug heavy textbooks around in his backpack as he hops between work and school.

Jhaveri adds that some textbook publishers, such as Cengage, offer unlimited access plans by the semester. He has subscribed to “Cengage Unlimited” for $120, which he has found to be a “very convenient tool.”
A group of students work on their laptopsPhoto by Liron Asher
Students spent an average of $413 on textbooks and course materials in 2019-20, according to an annual National Association of College Stores survey.

The UML Library provides several ways for faculty to find “open access” textbooks, which are released under an open copyright license and made available either online as an e-book or in print format at little or no cost to students.

Using the Faculty Select search portal, a professor can find a multiuser e-book that is already part of the library's collection or that the library can purchase through its subscription with EBSCO, a leading publisher of digital course materials. The library subscribes to several other e-book collections containing thousands of titles, including Ebook Central and Knovel Technical Reference. The Office of the Provost recently provided funding to expand the library’s e-book offerings, and a portion of students’ technology fee goes toward the purchase of e-books.

When Michel was prepping for a new course, Crime and the Media, last year, she found an EBSCO e-book that the library was able to purchase for a few hundred dollars. Since then, more than 70 students in four sections of the course have been able to access the textbook for free online.

“I love that students have it on the first day of class,” says Michel, who notes that students will sometimes wait to buy a textbook because they can’t afford it, hoping they can get by without it. “The students that are most likely to make that decision are precisely the students who need the most support. Getting the material to them on day one increases their probability of succeeding. That’s worth spending some time to go through that textbook selection process.”

Faculty members can also choose from Creative Commons textbooks, which are openly licensed e-books written at other colleges and universities and available for free through public clearinghouses such as OpenStax and the Open Textbook Library. 
“Getting the material to them on day one increases their probability of succeeding. That’s worth spending some time to go through that textbook selection process.” -Assist. Teaching Prof. Yahayra Michel
 Elissa Magnant, a visiting instructor of management in the Manning School, worked with the library last year to find an OpenStax textbook for her Business Ethics course. 

“It’s challenging for faculty to transition from materials they may have used for years, but the transition makes the learning experience better for the student and the teacher,” says Magnant, whose students could download the textbook for free on any device or receive a paperback version for just $20.

Whenever a faculty member chooses an e-book for their course, Library Guide Production Editor Meg Shields creates a LibGuide that integrates the book into the course’s Blackboard shell. The LibGuide includes instructions and videos on how to navigate the book online — information like how to use the glossary, how to download content and how to take notes.

“It helps students get more comfortable with the idea that they don’t have a physical textbook in front of them,” Shields says.

A student works with her laptopPhoto by Liron Asher
As schools move toward online and hybrid courses this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more students will be accessing course materials online.

Magnant says having her course’s e-book and LibGuide already set up on Blackboard last spring made the sudden transition to remote learning nearly “seamless.”

“I’m really happy with my new textbook. It’s a peer-reviewed and engaging textbook that brings business ethics to life,” says Magnant.

Faculty can also write and publish their own textbook under a Creative Commons license. That’s what Mathematical Science Prof. Kenneth Levasseur and his late colleague, Alan Doerr, did with their free, open content textbook, Applied Discrete Structures

Another popular option is to work with the library to create a course packet that includes journal articles, single chapters of books, and selected Open Educational Resources (OERs) published under Creative Commons licenses.

Librarian Margaret Manion has put together a LibGuide to help faculty find such resources and UML-owned textbooks by subject.

“In the current situation, e-books make a lot of sense,” says Shields, who acknowledges that identifying and transitioning to an e-book can be a lot of work for busy faculty members. “But I’m hoping this disruption will actually help faculty, who are having to retool their courses anyway. This might be a good time to be a little more DIY on the textbook front.”