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e-Textbook Apps and Higher Education Costs

The high cost of textbooks has been a significant concern among students, families, and legislators for the last several years, and it has often been used as a proxy for concerns about higher education costs generally. As the financial aid website FinAid.org notes (http://www.finaid.org/questions/textbooks.phtml):

"The average annual increase in college textbook prices from December 2001 to November 2010 was 6.1%, varying from a low of 4.1% to a high of 8.3%. These figures are based on the college textbooks component of the Consumer Price Index. Assuming this textbook inflation rate continues, the current annual cost of college textbooks in 2011 should be about $1057 on average."

In the face of this cost curve, many in and outside of higher education have pursued a variety of responses, from open educational resources (OER) projects to e-textbooks from traditional publishers. In reading an article about a new digital textbook iPad app, I was struck by both the enhanced note-taking and note-sharing functionality it provides, as well as the expected cost-savings to students purchasing textbooks through it:

"[The app company in question] has negotiated licensing contracts with the major publishers, making their textbooks available for 30 to 50 percent cheaper than the heavy physical copies. A company spokesperson told me [the company] was able to do this for two reasons: First, not having to print on paper saves the textbook company money, and second, [the app company] is apparently taking a small financial hit so that the price points for its digital texts would be more attractive to students who would rather buy used books and try to get back money by re-selling.

Books are available in the [app company's] store and are attached to an account, so they can be viewed from any device with a student's username and password. Any PDF downloaded online can also be uploaded into the [company's] app."

Obviously the qualifier that some of the reduced cost relates to a "loss leader" approach by the app company tempers the reading of the savings users might receive. However, even taken with a pinch of salt, the potential for $300-500 in savings to students over the course of a year is non-trivial and provides a modest illustration of how technology can make a difference in the costs to students of pursuing higher education. No doubt the OER community would argue that such resources may in time drive those costs even lower with similar end-user functionality (e.g., highlighting, note-taking, note-sharing with integrated Facebook support).

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