When Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet," he worked by candle and sunlight. Now, students at Augustana College will be reading his work bathed in a different kind of glow.
An electronic glow.
The Rock Island college is piloting a new e-book program in a Shakespearean literature class that would allow students to buy all of the books they need for the course through Amazon's Kindle platform.
Administrators at Augustana said the course could give them a better idea of what kind of content students want to use, how they want it delivered and how much they're willing to pay for a new learning platform.
Augustana's experiment comes just after an announcement in late January by five major universities that they would team up to pilot a bulk-purchasing program with e-textbooks through the publishing company McGraw-Hill.
Apple also announced, in January, the newest version of its iBooks app, which provides high school textbooks from McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt directly to students for $14.95 apiece.
With each announcement, local school administrators said they are finding new ways to cut skyrocketing textbook costs for students.
"Our goal is for students to realize some kind of advantage," said Shawn T. Beattie, manager of educational technology services at Augustana, where the idea for the college's pilot was introduced. "The goal of this pilot was to explore what those benefits might be, to get our feet wet in getting some more experience in dealing with the issues that tablets and e-texts are causing."
David Crowe, chairman of the English department at Augustana, is teaching the Shakespeare course and said in an e-mail that he volunteered his class for several reasons.
"Normally, I am a book guy," Crowe said. "On the other hand, I like to change up my courses, and some electronic tools have been really helpful, such as our online course management system, Moodle."
Crowe said the reduced cost also was an attraction.
"The Complete Works that I chose costs 99 cents, while my son's paper version at another college cost him - or rather, cost his mom and me - about $80," he said. "The price difference can underwrite the cost of the Kindle."
All told, students in Augustana's pilot program could just about break even on costs, according to college administrators.
The college is charging $35 a term to rent a Kindle Fire, and the cost of purchasing the books they'll need is about $18. The print versions of the books cost about $40.
One snag, however, could be that the print books and digital books chosen for Crowe's class are not the same books, so students could have trouble integrating the print and digital together.
Sonda Reinartz, bookstore manager at Augustana College, said Crowe struggled to find books that were available on both platforms, and as a result, he is using only one text that he has used in previous classes.
"It'll be interesting to see how that works for him," she said.
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and four other universities announced a pilot program in January that will allow each college to bulk-purchase e-textbooks for a lower cost than what students would normally pay per textbook.
Margie Whiteleather, strategic projects manager with the Cornell bookstore, said the pilot program is in the early stages, which is about three weeks into its term, so the student or faculty reaction to the e-textbooks isn't clear.
Four classes are participating in the program, and Whiteleather said the faculty volunteered their courses.
Cornell's participation in the pilot was last-minute, and as a result, unlike Augustana's program, Cornell students didn't get a choice to opt-in to the program.
Students still are able to buy print copies of the e-textbooks being used in the classrooms, but the process is more convoluted than usual, she said.
Each of the universities has paid the cost of the e-textbooks, so students were not required to pay for access during the pilot semester, and Whiteleather said she is excited to see the results of the mid- and post-semester polling.
"We're hoping it will provide more of a forum for all the faculty, together with the students, to comment on the variety of e-book platforms," Whiteleather said. "The formats that we've been selling previously at the Cornell store have been very much a student selection of which format, and this pilot - it's been much more driven by the faculty."
Reinartz said she was heartened by seeing larger universities trying out e-books in the classroom.
"I think that will make it easier for some of us, who don't have the resources that some of these schools may have, to see how that works," she said.
Although Reinartz said she is familiar with Cornell's project, she was quick to differentiate between the two.
Shakespeare's works are in the public domain and therefore not usually as expensive to purchase as chemistry or accounting textbooks might be, she said.
Reluctance to change
Administrators at Cornell, Augustana and St. Ambrose University, Davenport, said they had yet to see a substantive push by students or faculty toward providing more e-textbook resources.
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Mike Poster, vice president for finance at St. Ambrose, said the school surveyed students and faculty to find out if they would be interested in using digital textbooks in their courses.
When asked if they would purchase an e-textbook, nearly 20 percent of the students said they would not and another 20 percent responded that it was very unlikely they would consider purchasing one, according to the survey.
Faculty members responded similarly, with 30 percent saying they would not use an e-book in their classroom and another 19 percent saying it was very unlikely.
Of the nearly 4,000 students and faculty on the St. Ambrose campus, 391 responded to the survey taken in December.
Poster said the university also offers a textbook rental program to students, which cuts up to 50 percent of the regular price of a textbook.
"What we're finding, though, in some cases, is that students prefer to keep their book, especially those that are in their major," Poster said. "It hasn't been as popular as we thought it would be."
Poster said another drawback to using e-textbooks is that only about a quarter of the university's current textbooks are offered in a digital format.
"The availability just isn't there at this time," Poster said.
Despite the slow-moving textbook publishing industry, Poster and Reinartz agreed that change is coming.
Reinartz hopes Augustana's program would give her a better idea of what students want to see on the shelves of the bookstore.
She said what she is willing to pay for books and e-textbooks or readers is immaterial.
"It's not whether I would be willing, it's whether the students would be willing, and that's a vastly different approach," Reinartz said. "What I have seen, my experience - we do have a few e-books available sitting right next to the textbook - as of now, they are not."
Reinartz and Poster said the newness of the e-textbook platform and students being unfamiliar with the different learning experience could be factors in why print textbooks were still more popular than digital ones.
It might take a new generation of students who grew up in an increasingly digital world to change the shelf offerings of local bookstores.
"Kids right now, in kindergarten, are learning to read on e-books," Reinartz said. "They're not holding Dick, Jane and Sally like I did."