Campus adjusts to more online textbooks

By Brooklyn Dance

Madison Brown, senior religion major, spent her summer interning out of the country without access to her email. She had no idea some of her books for this fall were digital until she returned and saw an email from the bookstore.

For Brown, physical textbooks are an important part of her college experience.

“I’ve kept all my textbooks for my major since freshman year,” Brown said. “Highlights, notes and all, those are the books that started my personal library and have helped form my theological understanding and language. Online books take away the tangible book, which is something very important to me.”

Brown’s online books are among the 1,100 electronic copies of books that were distributed this fall by Tree of Life, the company hired by Trevecca to manage its bookstore. The bookstore ordered more than 10,000 books this year and electronic books account for 11 percent of all textbooks distributed.

Whether a book is electronic or in print is not necessarily up to the university.

David Caldwell, executive vice president for finance and administration, attended a conference put on by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities over the summer. He learned that of the five major publishers who account for 80 percent of textbooks, some are switching to online books.

Caldwell later received a call from Tree of Life explaining that some of the books Trevecca students needed for fall 2018 classes are only available in an online format. If Tree of Life were to acquire those books, they would have to buy them new. Tree of Life said they could guarantee all books would be received as physical copies for a 30 percent upcharge.

Trevecca spends more than $900,000 on books per year, Caldwell said. Textbooks are included in tuition for students.

“We don’t have 30 percent times $900,000. We don’t have $270,000 to just throw out there. [That would cost] another $200 per student,” Caldwell said.

The cabinet met and discussed the topic, ultimately deciding to accept online books for the sake of keeping the cost down for students.

Caldwell recalls hearing of middle and high schools in Nashville in which students have never received a hard copy of a textbook, indicating to him that the future is digital.

“In five years, those will be incoming freshman. If you gave them a physical book, they would say ‘What do I do with this?’”

Pearson, a leading textbook company, took their top 200 to 300 titles and made them unavailable as physical copies, Caldwell said. Textbook companies are dealing with piracy problems and copyright issues.

We’re caught in the middle of this. We didn’t know how it would work out,” Caldwell said.

Students received an email from the Trevecca Book Store on July 18 explaining that some books may be online books, in order to keep costs down.

On the first day of classes, many teachers and students were still surprised to learn some materials were only available online.

Katie Miller, bookstore manager, said she received a lot of emails from both faculty and students at the beginning of the semester concerning digital books. In many situations, students just didn’t know how to access the books electronically.

“Every time someone came in with questions, we were able to figure it out,” Miller said.

Tim Gaines, assistant professor of religion, has online books in his Christian Tradition and Systematic Theology classes. He didn’t know he was teaching with online books until the first day of class.

“My first awareness that students would be working with digital texts came on the first day of class when I was introducing the course textbooks and some students began asking questions about using digital copies of the texts,” Gaines said.

Lena Hegi Welch, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, said several faculty members in her school contacted her at the beginning of the semester as they were surprised to find out books they chose for classes were given to students in electronic format.

“I began getting emails from faculty, [saying things like] no one had told us how to log in, we didn’t have copies of e-books, some didn’t have page numbers … In terms of pedagogy and what it means to teach with an e-book, faculty just had no warning,” Welch said.

Welch said deans were informed there may be a switch to electronic books in a deans meeting at the beginning of the semester, but they didn’t know specifically which classes or books would be effected.

“We were told there was a chance [books] may be electronic, it was all discussion, [there] won’t be very many, may be a few,” Welch said. “I almost didn’t mention it to faculty of arts and sciences, [thinking] there won’t be many. Just by chance, I mentioned it.”

All Speech Communication books are digital this year. Professors did not know until the first speech class started and one professor asked students to take out their book, and no one had one.

“That’s the one we were all kind of surprised about,” Welch said.

In the future, Welch hopes the process is communicated more efficiently.

“I hope there is a plan going forward to do a couple things. First of all, to do a better job notifying students to expect e-books. My biggest concern is students,” Welch said. “I just did an informal survey, not anonymous, asking students if they have access to a laptop or tablet or reader 24/7. Almost 10 percent of my General Education class did not. They had their phone, but it is difficult to read a textbook on a phone.”

Welch is also hopeful students are better notified of all the options for receiving textbooks.

There was an option for students to pay $9.99 per credit hour to guarantee printed book rentals. Miller said around 30 students chose to do that this semester.

Students also have the option to opt out of the textbooks included in tuition program through Tree of Life.

Concerning student participation, Welch is not yet sure if students read digital books less or participate in class less because of digital books.

“I would like to see a Tree of Life or book store representative meeting with students. It could be SGA, it could also be other student groups, to get a sense of study habits and reading,” Welch said.

Gaines said he is also interested in seeing an assessment on student performance with online books.

“It’s hard to say whether the presence of digital text this semester is causing a decrease in student engagement. There are a number of factors that affect student engagement and different means of measuring student engagement, so it would be difficult to narrow their engagement down to one factor alone,” Gaines said. “I would be interested in seeing whether the use of a digital text influences student performance on some learning assessments from year to year.”

Most of all, Welch said she is worried about some students who may not have access to technology.

“I think the university has to think about the fact that this may be a serious obstacle for some students who don’t come from homes with a lot of technology,” Welch said. “I’d like to see the university make laptops and tablets available for an extended rental.”

Brown said that is also a concern of students.

“I find it extremely unfair to our students who don’t own laptops. Only being able to access your textbook on Trevecca computers is limiting and hindering and does not take into account their daily lives or schedules,” Brown said.

Caldwell is aware that lack of technology could be an issue for students, though he has not heard of any complaints yet.

Gaines is hesitant to transition to online books, citing research that students learn better with hard copies.

“While there’s no doubt that college students are going to need to acquire the skills to work with digital platforms, most early findings are showing that we do better processing complex or extended arguments when we are reading from a page,” Gaines said. “Digital platforms may deliver more information more quickly, but sitting down with a hard copy in your hands is probably better at helping us learn to think.”

He said he’s hopeful that book sellers, publishers and universities can come together to find solutions that are best for students.

“While market forces are a reality, they are not the only reality. If enough innovative and creative professors and administrators can engage the conversation, I think we can find some solutions that don’t add more to students’ debt load while also putting the best material in their hands,” he said. “Our mission is too critical to simply shrug and resign ourselves to methods of teaching that we know aren’t preparing students as well as we could to creatively and faithfully engage a world that isn’t getting any simpler. I’d like to look at what it might mean for universities to partner together to curate content, or to enter more directly into partnership with publishers who can provide print books on an as-need basis.”

A print version of this story appeared in the October issue of the TrevEchoes. This story has been updated to make necessary corrections.

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