Friday, 17 January 2014

Allies in the effort to supply college students with textbooks

When I read the blurb about Algonquin College's new program to provide electronic books as textbooks for students through January 17th's Academica Top Ten email, I was impressed.  Sure, everyone's moving towards ebooks now, but it's always nice to see an academic institution move forward on such a project with this much effort and planning.  And speed too!  Three years might seem like a long time to take to do something like this but ebooks are still pretty new and, institutionally, we're all still testing the waters with the vendors to see what works and what doesn't.

The write-up on Contact North seems more like a press release than an actual information piece designed to help the other post-secondary institutions consider their own related projects but it points out many key strengths of the project from my perspective:

  • Partnering with more than one publisher:  Excellent.  The more the merrier.  That gives the institution more flexibility in pricing and instructors more choice in titles to use as texts.
  • One platform that isn't connected with a specific publisher:  Not bad.  Hopefully the developer will listen to the institution in terms of changing needs, customization, and support.  Although it is Ingram's product, and their other ebook platform, MyiLibrary, is pretty bad.
  • AODA compliant to some degree:  It doesn't go into much detail but it's got something.  Again, hopefully they'll be able to work with the vendor.
However, the article claims several benefits that have nothing to do with the deal specifically and only apply since we're talking about electronic resources, online stuff, like how they can be kept current much easier and cheaper than with print.  Really?  An online resource can be changed by the vendor at a distance?  Wow.  Next you'll be telling me there are screens that respond to TOUCH.

There were a few details that bothered me:
  • The constant referral to cost-savings:  That's great and all but it's a little cliched to lean on the not-quite-accurate idea that ebooks are always cheaper because of the lack of printing costs.  The deal includes, for now, a built-in discount for electronic versions compared to the print versions.  Phase One allows for perpetual access to the titles if the student downloads them to a personal device.  Hopefully that will last.  Publisher's haven't tended to just give away that kind of access in the past so hopefully it will survive the pilot stage.  Of course, I assume that students won't be able to sell the etextbooks they aren't using anymore, illustrating just where the students' "savings" are coming from.
  • The library is not mentioned once:  Yes, this deal is about student "purchase" of textbooks, but I would hope that the library had at least a seat at the table since we've all been dealing with ebooks and access issues (not to mention the platform vendor and the publishers in this deal) for a long time.  Some of the texts being used might well be acquired for less and with more stability by their own library.  The library should also be used to negotiating consortially for ebook deals, a possible direction the article mentions at the end.
  • 100% of students?  100% of programs?:  I hope that doesn't force the hand of faculty too much.  Despite the flexibility of platform and the selection of publishers, I would assume that it's not always going to be possible to find the ideal textbook in the list of system-compatible works.  I don't know how college instructors select textbooks for their courses but I hope that this doesn't mean that they will have to "make do" with a certain title just because the institution has demanded universal compliance.
Well, hopefully Algonquin and other institution's moving in this direction will learn and grow through this effort.  I will be interesting to see how it turns how, come next September.

[ Read "e-Textbooks at Algonquin College" from Contact North. ]

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