Customize and Digitize Your College Education

New digital textbook services could transform how course materials are delivered to students.

By + More

Keith Graziadei, an adjunct ESL professor at Santa Monica College, was wary of putting together course packets for his students because of the rigmarole inherent in their assembly. Instead of finding the articles, securing copyright clearances, and having the materials printed, he used to simply have his students purchase two textbooks and print supplemental materials he created. 

This semester, however, Graziadei took part in a pilot program for a new tool called AcademicPub, which allows professors to build custom course packs online that have automatic copyright clearance. Students can purchase these online and either print them in the school bookstore, have them shipped directly by AcademicPub, or read them as a high resolution PDF via any digital reader. 

Rather than being forced to buy two textbooks, which can cost about $45 total, Graziadei's students have access to a custom book containing textbook chapters and his original materials that only costs $20.50. "I had never created a course pack before because my thinking was it's a lot of work involved," he says. "This made the process very streamlined and very easy." 

[See how test prep is going mobile.] 

AcademicPub, which launched earlier this month, gives professors freedom to piece Internet articles, textbook chapters, and original materials like syllabi into a single book. The tool alters all articles from the Web or word processors so they closely mirror the common formatting of a textbook. "There's no waste," says Caroline Vanderlip, CEO of AcademicPub's parent, SharedBook. "It's exactly what you want to use. You're not paying for that waste." 

AcademicPub is hoping to become a major player in a market that has simmered below the surface at colleges for several years but has yet to boil over. Though technology will be the gateway for a slew of new E-textbooks and custom course materials, it has also been a barrier, academic officials say. In recent years, some professors and students, anxious to embrace new digital technologies, were turned off by what some considered to be clunky and primitive digital textbooks that lacked annotation capability and eye-catching visual elements.

New advancements, like those from SharedBook and XanEdu, which has created a course packet reader for the iPad that students are using at schools like New York University and Boston University, are sophisticated enough to draw them back, experts say, or to push once hesitant professors like Graziadei into the custom course materials market. 

"That willingness to innovate is difficult for some people," says Steven Lubrano, assistant dean and chief operating officer at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. "Some of the resistance that's anchored on old behaviors can be reshaped by some of the new technology." 

[Read about M.B.A. programs utilizing the iPad.] 

Tuck recently engaged in a pilot program for AcademicPub as part of the school's environmentally driven decision to use digital media as the default for all course materials. Of the students involved in the pilot program, only about 25 percent requested a printed copy. 

That three fourths of the students didn't want or need anything printed assured school officials they had made the right decision and the time, money, and resources that used to go to waste could be spared. This didn't, however, save the students much money, Lubrano says, because digital rights fees were on par with those of traditional course packs. AcademicPub charges a $7.50 fee per book and every additional article or chapter (outside of materials created by the professor) tacks on incremental costs determined by the publisher. 

Some school bookstores have had comprehensive E-textbook programs in place for several years, but only a few offer options for custom, digital course materials. San Diego State University, for instance, has offered E-textbooks since 2007 through partnerships with publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson in which students can buy full digital textbooks or individual chapters at a price far lower than the hard copies.