The Indiana University eText Experience: Getting Started

1 Background: eText and the eText Program Defined

David W. Lewis, IU Assistant Vice President for Digital Scholarly Communication and Dean of the IUPUI University Library


An “eText” is a digital object, usually a textbook but sometimes another type of learning material. (At IU, these include digital learning tools that instructors incorporate to offer interactive instructional materials and adaptive learning experiences for students.) These objects are provided using a specific economic model and a set of systems and practices that compose the “eTexts program.”

The eText as a digital learning object is not unique to the IU eTexts program. Creating digital versions of print materials or creating new learning objects using digital technologies is not what makes IU’s eTexts program unique. What is unique is the economic model and the systems and practices put in place to implement the model.[1]

The Indiana University (IU) eTexts program began and continues with four goals:

  1. Reduce the costs of course-related materials for students
  2. Provide faculty with the high-quality materials they desire
  3. Enable adaptive learning platforms and new tools for teaching and learning—for instance, annotations in an eText that can be shared with other users
  4. Develop a sustainable model that works for all stakeholders involved: faculty, students, authors, and publishers

To achieve these goals it was clear that the university, as an institution, needed to become an active player in the textbook market.

Students, the direct consumers, have little or no ability to significantly influence the textbook market. Faculty decide which books are required, and publishers set the prices and terms of the transaction. Students can complain, but they have little power to alter the terms of the deal. They can, and often do, game the system at the margins—but at the end of the day, they have little or no power or influence. When the university enters the picture and negotiates with publishers on behalf of students, this changes. The university can negotiate with publishers and provide valued services in ways that individual students cannot. The willingness of IU to do so was the first key step.

The next step was to create a new model that achieved the four goals. Two factors made creating a new model possible.

First, most textbooks were available in digital formats, which meant the inherent efficiencies of digital technologies could be captured. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson put it, digital content is free, perfect, and instant. Once something is digitized, it’s essentially free to make an additional copy of it. Once a digital original is created, copies are every bit as good as their digital originals. In fact, the digital copy is identical to the original digital version. Networks allow distribution of a free perfect copy of information goods from one place to another, or from one place to many, virtually immediately.[2] Most digital content is, of course, protected by copyright so these attributes cannot always be easily achieved.

Second, the extreme dysfunction of the existing textbook market meant that a different economic model could be created to benefit everyone. Students could pay less, and publishers and authors could earn at least as much as they had been earning (and their income streams would be more reliable).

Digital technologies inherently provide efficiencies and benefits such as cheap and easy distribution of content, the ability to easily modify and update texts, and the ability to include audio, video, simulations and other content that print cannot accommodate. But the challenge is to provide a reading experience comparable to print and/or provide print-on-demand versions of the text. Students need evidence that the experience with the digital version is as good as or better than reading and studying with the print version of a textbook. Faculty need to be convinced that digital versions of textbooks do not diminish learning. And both want students to have access on all their devices beyond a single semester.

The economic model created was one in which the publishers provided digital content at a significantly reduced price in exchange for having every student in the class pay this reduced fee. Publishers were thus guaranteed a reasonable and reliable return because all of the students in a class are assessed this charge as an eText fee tied to the course. Modeling done as part of the development of the eText program indicated that publishers most likely would get a better and larger income stream than they would selling traditional textbooks—especially given the growing market where used books and rentals decrease the sales of new textbooks.[3]

Importantly, the university would negotiate advantageous terms with publishers and pass the fees along to students. This arrangement created two challenges. The first was to convince publishers that this was in fact a better deal for them. The second was to convince students and faculty that a required universal eText fee, even when it meant lower prices, was a fair arrangement. Modeling of the student side indicated that, while a small number of students who successfully purchased a used textbook and resold it might do a little bit better than the eText price, on average the large majority of students would pay much less.

Brad Wheeler and Nik Osborne outlined the notable features of the IU agreements with publishers in their 2012 case study.[4]

  1. Extended Access to eTexts — Students will be able to access their eTexts for as long as they attend the university (as opposed to having the content disappear after a set time—e.g., after three to six months).
  2. Elimination of Print Restrictions — Students are able to print as many pages as they want from an eText and may also request a print-on-demand version of the textbook for a small fee.
  3. Significant Cost Savings — The IU agreements focus on providing eTexts to every student at a cost similar to what students would pay if buying and selling back a used textbook—equal to about half the price of an eText available in the marketplace.
  4. Multiple Devices — The agreements with Courseload and the publishers allow users to access the eTexts via multiple devices (laptop, tablets, smartphones, etc.) both online and offline.
  5. Uniform Access — Through its agreement with software provider Courseload, the university has eliminated the need for students and faculty to download and learn multiple software platforms to access eTexts; instead, one platform is used to access, read, and annotate all eTexts, and one username and password are used to access the platforms (the same username and password students and faculty use to access Oncourse, IU’s learning management system).

The model had one other key component. The platform used to provide the eTexts was managed by the university. This meant that there was a single platform rather than multiple publisher platforms. In turn, this meant that students had a common experience with all of their eTexts, and integration with the course management system was simpler. Importantly, this also meant that the university controlled the data generated by the platform and could use it appropriately for assessing teaching and learning.

It is important to distinguish the IU eTexts program from digital textbook programs offered by publishers. In most cases, publishers charged more than the IU eTexts price for their digital textbooks. And in most cases the publisher’s digital textbooks were only available to students in the semester they took the class. This is a particular disadvantage in cases where introductory textbooks become important references as students advance in their programs, or where students need to take certification exams upon completion of their studies.

The impetus for the eText project came from Brad Wheeler and the Office of the Vice President for Information Technology. An important factor early on in the project was the fact that IU’s 2007 agreement with Barnes & Noble as the exclusive physical location for the sale of textbooks did not include an exclusive right to sell electronic content. This meant that the eText project could proceed without consent from the bookstore. This made it possible to explore the eText model without having to be concerned about the potential for a turf battle with the campus bookstore.

As this book explores in more detail later, eTexts also have a number of pedagogical advantages. First, the eText is available to all students on the first day of class (IU also has a similar goal for providing accommodated textbooks via its Assistive Technology and Accessibility Centers). This may seem like a small thing, but it is not. In addition, research conducted as part of the IU eTexts initiative shows that many students find eTexts more convenient and appreciate their interactive features.[5] When the program initially rolled out in 2011, there were concerns about student acceptance of the digital reading experience and their ability to comprehend and absorb content as well as they could with print textbooks. This has become a non-issue as the eText platform has become more robust and student use of various digital platforms—from computers to tablets to phones—has become ubiquitous. And IU’s Assistive Technology and Accessibility Centers (ATAC) worked with software providers, national organizations, and publishers to ensure that content could be available for all students.


. . . . .

[1] A good description of the genesis of the program can be found in, Brad Wheeler and Nik Osborne, Case Study 21: Shaping the Path to Digital: The Indiana University eTexts Initiative,” in Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies, edited by Diana G. Oblinger, EDUCAUSE, 2012, pages 373-380.

[2] Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pages 135-136.

[3] Alan Dennis, “Textbook Pricing Analysis,” May 2009,

[4] Brad Wheeler and Nik Osborne, “Case Study 21: Shaping the Path to Digital: The Indiana University eTexts Initiative,” in Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies, edited by Diana G. Oblinger, EDUCAUSE, 2012, page 377.

[5] Serdar Abaci, Joshua Quick, and Anastasia Morrone, “Student Engagement with e-Texts: What the Data Tell Us,” Educause Review October 9, 2017,


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eTexts 101: A Practical Guide Copyright © by The Trustees of Indiana University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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