University waiting to endorse e-books

Technology is turning the page on hard copy textbooks — well, almost.

Twenty sections of RHET 105, one of the most popular courses on campus, are offering their textbooks in a computerized format. Students purchase an access code and can read the book on their computer or on an e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle or Sony’s Reader.

“We’ve sold close to 100 (e-books) this semester,” said Brad Bridges, associate director of the Illini Union Bookstore. “That’s more than all of our sales from the last five semesters combined.” Bridges said purchasing an e-book is usually anywhere from 30 to 50 percent cheaper than the new list price of a hardcopy textbook.

Jessica Hourigan, a sophomore in LAS, said using her Kindle has been financially beneficial.

“In just this semester alone I have saved over $60 in books required for my classes,” Hourigan said. As an English major, Hourigan reaps major benefits from her Kindle.

“Older texts such as ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ by Oscar Wilde that are not in print anymore are actually free on the Kindle as opposed to the $10 one would probably pay in the Illini Union Bookstore,” Hourigan said. “Because I read a lot of classics in my courses, this is definitely a perk for me.”

The obvious perks of digital texts for English majors are something the University is not ignoring.

“Our English department is experimenting with an electronic textbook, which is different, in that it is not restricted to any one device type,” Chief Information Officer and Associate Provost Sally Jackson said.

E-readers are pressing the college textbook market to evolve rapidly. While bookstores are adapting to the shift, the University isn’t quite ready to jump on board.

In a press release issued last November, the University stated, “We will not embrace technologies that undercut our commitment to accessibility.” As a public university, the school must comply with the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA), which requires all information technologies to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

“We have not decided against e-books, but only against devices that cannot be used by people with visual impairments,” Jackson said. “We also try not to buy software that is impossible for some people to use.”

Despite the stance taken at the University, several colleges across the country — including Arizona State, Virginia and Princeton — have piloted programs using the Amazon Kindle DX, offering the e-readers to different student focus groups.

Jackson said the University has not given thought to piloting a program here.

“I have trusted colleagues at all three places and will learn as much from their pilots as if we did one here,” Jackson said.

Though the Kindle DX features read-aloud technology that would close the accessibility gap, the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind note that menus and navigational tools do not meet accessibility needs; the advocacy groups filed a discrimination suit against Arizona State last year.

“Eventually they’re going to come out with a reader that’s fully functional,” Bridges said. “There’s going to be an evolution. Clearly the e-readers we have now, if they were any good, people would be using them. At some point they are going to become robust enough that people are going to accept them and they’ll become a good part of what we do.”

With the University’s financial woes culminating in increased tuition, a move toward e-books as a cost cutting measure for students is something that cannot be ignored.

“It would make no appreciable difference to University revenue, but as a state-supported land-grant university, Illinois has always been genuinely committed to affordability as one dimension of access to higher education,” Jackson said.

Though the University has taken an anticipatory position, Jackson is eager to embrace the new technology.

“The stance on accessibility that we took, along with other Universities, has drawn a lot of positive attention and is having an impact,” Jackson said. “Accessible e-readers are on the horizon, and we’re excited about the benefits for all students, including those with disabilities.”