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

“The Rising cost of college textbooks has long been a burden for students, often motivating them to seek creative ways to get around this expense. Though digital textbooks—with their ability to provide cheaper, easier, and better access to content—have been around for years, the use of digital textbooks for academic purposes is still not widespread.”[1]

So began a 2012 case study on the IU eTexts program written by Brad Wheeler and Nik Osbourne. They concluded their article by saying, “The shift to digital course content is upon us as the rise of remarkable consumer devices, interactive content, new software platforms, and new economics pave the way. Colleges and universities have a remarkable opportunity to help determine the prices for digital material that will be with us for many years. Institutions can work directly with content and software-platform providers to vastly reduce the costs of going digital with sustainable, win-win models. The IU road to etexts illuminates one path for that endeavor.”[2]

By the mid-2000s it was clear to anyone who looked that the textbook market was a mess. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in July 2005 documented a 186% increase in textbook costs between December 1986 and December 2004, a period in which overall inflation was 72%.[3] The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documents an 87.5% increase in textbook prices between 2006 and 2016. During this period general inflation was 21.4% and textbook prices increased at a faster rate than any other education cost.[4] These costs are shown in the graph below.

Consumer price indexes for tuition and school-related items, not seasonally adjusted, January 2006-July 2016
Consumer price indexes for tuition and school-related items, not seasonally adjusted, January 2006-July 2016

The State Public Interest Research Groups, which represent student interests, documented the problem in a series of reports. The titles of the reports make their point of view clear: RIPOFF 101: How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs; Required Reading: A Look at the Worst Publishing Tactics at Work; Exposing the Textbook Industry: How Publishers’ Pricing Tactics Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks; and Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives.[5] These reports cite publisher practices such as frequent revision, bundling, and other tactics to increase prices and limit the used book market. Publishers justified these practices by arguing that they faced a market where students would do almost anything to avoid high costs—from the reasonable selling of books in the used market to the less reasonable importing of illegally pirated copies from countries where the costs were lower. In many cases students would go without the textbook, buy it well after the start of the semester, or sell it before the end of term even though it hurt their ability to be successful in the course. A survey by U.S. PIRG shows that 65% of student consumers have opted out of buying a college textbook due to its high price, and of those students, 94% say they suffer academically.[6]

Something needed to be done.

There were some efforts to create open textbooks, most notably by Connexions, now OpenStax, but these efforts had limited reach since they were strategically focused on particular subject areas and large enrollment courses. Other open textbooks have been published on a wide range of topics by individuals or other publishing efforts, yet even then textbooks are not available for every class. In addition, some faculty were concerned about the quality of open textbooks, believed that a commercial textbook option is the best choice for their teaching and their students’ learning, or found it difficult to invest the time and energy to develop alternatives. Some faculty wrote textbooks—and a small number made large amounts of money doing so—but in most cases this work was not rewarded by promotion and tenure committees. Universities had left textbook selection decisions to faculty and delegated to campus bookstores the sale, and purchase and resale, of textbooks.

The problem was obvious, but what to do about it was not.

Indiana University decided that action was required and charted the path explored and explained in the following pages.

The key insight, described at length in Brad Wheeler’s chapter “Negotiating with the Family Feuds,” was that the university needed to become a participant in the textbook marketplace in order to create a system that would allow faculty choice, significantly reduce prices for students, and provide a reasonable return to authors and publishers. The IU program’s success stemmed in large part from a clear understanding of the nature of the textbook market (and the reasons for its failure to serve any of the players), as well as a willingness to propose and then implement an alternative. The resulting IU eTexts program took advantage of technology, but technology alone was not enough. The combination of digital technology and a new business model distinguished IU eTexts from other programs. Neither, standing alone, would have been sufficient. The combination saved students millions of dollars (see The Indiana University eText Experience: Growth of the eText Program). It also created a more stable income stream for publishers, and they have come to embrace this eText approach they refer to as “All Access, Inclusive Access, or Day 1 Access.” Most importantly, it has ensured more students have access to materials that are key to their academic success (see The Indiana University eText Experience: The Benefits of eTexts for Students and Instructors).

This book has three sections. The first relates the story of how Indiana University developed and implemented its eTexts program. The second section offers perspectives from several publishers who have participated in the program. The third section provides reports from other universities on work they are doing to address the textbook issue.

The IU eTexts program provides a replicable, successful model for how universities and colleges can work with publishers and with their faculty to provide digital course materials in a way that can enhance students’ learning experience and will reduce the cost of attendance.

[1] 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.

[2] 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 380.

[3] United States Government Accountability Office, College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases, July 2004, GAO-05-806.

[4]College Tuition and Fees Increase 63 Percent Since January 2006,TED: The Economics Daily, August 30, 2016, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book