​Indiana University's embrace of eText program saves students money and improves outcomes


Back in 2009 as textbook prices soared, administrators at Indiana University were concerned that students were either purchasing outdated editions or not purchasing textbooks at all, leaving themselves unprepared for classes.

Dr. Anastasia Morrone, associate vice president for learning technologies at Indiana University, recalls there were some electronic textbooks available through commercial vendors, but they weren’t much less expensive than hard copies and were available for only 180 days, so access was limited.

“We were really struck by the fact that students were becoming increasingly alarmed by the rising cost of textbooks,” says Morrone. “This was really broken and we needed to do something,” she said.

That led the university to introduce a pilot program in a few selected courses, paying for electronic editions of textbooks, or eTexts, that were available through the Courseload Engage digital platform (since acquired by Unizin). It didn’t take long to determine from faculty and student feedback that eTexts were an attractive option, according to Morrone.

Today, there are more than 88,000 texts provided by 25 different publishers, Morrone says, and each year there is substantial growth to IU’s eText program. She estimates students have saved more than $3.5 million to date in textbook costs and says more than 40,000 of 100,000 students used at least one eText in the past academic year across all IU campuses.

Indiana University is also now a member of Unizin, a nonprofit consortium of 11 public universities, an ecosystem of next generation digital learning environment dedicated to improving student success and graduation rates, according to Robin Littleworth, chief operating officer of Unizin. As part of its membership fee, IU has access to the Ereader platform that was once owned by Courseload. In addition to the software platform, Unizin captures the data from eText use and “puts it back in our members’ hands,” says Littleworth.

IU’s eTexts program took root when university officials put out a request for proposal (RFP) to publishers for reduced costs on electronic versions of their textbooks. When faculty members opt to use eTexts for their courses, their students receive a charge on their bursar bill for a cost significantly lower than that of a physical book, according to Morrone. Students can access the digital textbooks on their computers, tablets and mobile phones.

The benefits of the eText program, however, extend beyond saving students money, Morrone says.

Students have access to their eText purchases for the duration of their time at IU and can refer back to them when in other related classes. The challenge of buying and selling back books each semester is also eliminated.

Even more compelling, Morrone says, is the way eTexts allow students to highlight, take and share notes with other students and even ask instructors questions. It’s a way to bring the book alive.

“We saw from our research that when faculty are engaged, making notes and highlighting sections with comments such as ‘pay attention to this section, we’ll be talking about it,’ students found it useful and paid attention,” Morrone told EdScoop.

The university also benefits from the data collected on that engagement. For example, Unizin provides reports on whether and when students are reading, how often, how much time they spend on a particular chapter or unit, and what they do and don’t understand. In turn, that helps the university drive instruction and better understand what students know and where they struggle.

The aggregated data is de-identified and students can opt-out of participation through end-user licenses, according to Littleworth.

“Students who are engaged with the text are doing better than those who aren’t,” says Morrone. “We’ve always suspected that, but we never had data before.”

Although there is print-on-demand option, very few students take advantage of it, which probably speaks to their adeptness at digital learning and concerns about sustainability, says Morrone.

The university is launching an awareness-raising campaign to increase participation in the eText program, reaching out to professors at different campuses.

“We want to drive down the cost of education and put teaching and learning tools in the hands of faculty and students,” Morrone said.