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Business Officer Magazine

Putting E-Textbooks to the Test

Participating in a series of pilot projects is allowing the University of Wisconsin–Madison to experiment with the impact of electronic textbooks on teaching and learning.

By Sandra R. Sabo

The University of Wisconsin-Madison recently launched its third consecutive pilot to deliver e-textbooks to some of its 42,500 students. Bruce Maas, Wisconsin's chief information officer and vice provost for information technology, sees the pilots as essential steps in the university's inevitable move from a paper-based learning environment to a predominately electronic one.

 "At Wisconsin, we aren't interested in adopting gee-whiz technology for its own sake," says Maas, "but we do want to understand the impact that e-texts might have on teaching and learning. There's no better way to do that than experimenting."

Wisconsin's pilot projects have been organized through Internet2, working in conjunction with EDUCAUSE. Joining a pilot group, notes Maas, enables Wisconsin to benefit from other institutions' experiences and research findings. Also, he adds, "These pilots give us the opportunity to help influence the private sector as the market for electronic textbooks continues to evolve." (See also "What's Next for Text?" in the February 2013 issue of Business Officer.)

Wisconsin's first pilot featured McGraw-Hill textbooks delivered via the Courseload platform to about 700 students; the second offered e-textbooks from several publishers. With its third pilot, Wisconsin switched to the CourseSmart platform and narrowed its focus to about 100 students who use e-textbooks predominantly for a wide variety of courses and levels.

 "The first pilot raised a lot of questions, which we factored into the design of the second pilot, and so on," Maas explains. "Through this incremental approach, we hope to gain a better understanding of all the costs and impacts."

With the first pilot, for example, Wisconsin prepared its IT help desk for an onslaught of calls and made sure back-up paper copies of each pilot course textbook were available at its libraries. Yet few calls came in to the help desk, as the students had little trouble mastering the new technology. The university also discovered that some faculty members were already experimenting with e-textbooks on their own. Consequently, any campuswide initiative in the future would need to consider those existing users-and their arrangements with various publishers.

Guiding Lights

Before participating in its first pilot, Wisconsin developed a set of guiding principles, which it later refined and applied to subsequent pilots. The seven principles fall into three categories: essential, important, and long term. Any e-textbook business model being considered by the university is evaluated against its ability to provide:

  1. Accessibility. An e-textbook's text, reading options, navigation, notes, and other components must be equivalent (or nearly equivalent) for students who use assistive technologies compared to students who don't.
  2. Faculty choice. E-textbooks need to be current, of high quality, and able to accommodate faculty-generated content.
  3. Savings for students. An e-textbook should cost less than a used or rented print textbook.
  4. Format choice, flexibility, and options. The most desirable content is openly accessible rather than protected. In addition, the e-textbook platform should allow for integration with multiple learning management systems and for use on multiple devices. 
  5. Long-term and secure access. Secure integration with the university's identity-management systems is needed (especially if student data are shared with third parties). Content should remain available during the student's tenure at the university-and possibly beyond.
  6. Learning enhancement. Additional features and tools help engage students more deeply with textbook content and ultimately provide a better learning experience.
  7. Investment and support of open e-textbook adoption. An institutional e-textbook service model should encourage use of open content, identify and remove barriers to the adoption of open textbooks, and promote a community of instructors using open texts.

 "We believe in sharing and want to be transparent about what we're doing at Wisconsin so the higher education community can learn from our experiences," Maas emphasizes. To that end, descriptions of the e-textbook pilots and the final evaluation report from the first pilot are available at   

SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.