New service takes textbooks online

JP Leider

It’s no secret that textbook costs are an issue for students, faculty member and the University administration.

After numerous committee meetings and inquests, stakeholders generally agree: Textbook costs are increasing at a troubling rate.

Two University alumni hope to make paying for textbooks a thing of the past.

Howard Quinlan and Tom Doran head Freeload Press, a St. Paul-based company that distributes textbooks online at no cost to students.

But there is a caveat – the electronic texts come with advertising.

The company’s catalog houses some 100 titles, including study guides and textbooks.

In their past work in the textbook market, Doran said, price became an increasingly important issue for students.

“As publishers using a traditional textbook model, we were seeing students opting not to buy new books and increasingly saw students opt not to buy any book,” he said. “We saw technology as part of the solution.”

Doran estimated that by 2007, 200,000 students will regularly use Freeload.

For now, students at the University don’t have the chance to; no University professors elect to use Freeload titles in the classroom.

A new medium
Even with the introduction of companion materials and Web sites, textbooks have followed generally the same model for decades.

Kathleen Hansen, a University journalism professor and textbook author, has been working with the current model and said she wants a change.

“I am someone who has been working with textbook publishers for 25 years,” she said. “I would love to have a different way of getting content into students’ hands.”

Hansen, who is contemplating a new edition of her textbook, “Behind the Message,” said she is looking for a new medium of release, possibly online.

“The bookstores charge an incredible, incredible, inflated price for something,” she said. “I would think anything that makes it possible for students to have access to content in a way that’s affordable to them makes sense.”

Quinlan, Freeload’s chief operating officer, said arguments about advertising in the academic world seem superficial as the company receives feedback from pleased students.

Some students now don’t have to choose between eating and purchasing a textbook, he said.

“It really makes those kinds of philosophical arguments kind of shallow,” he said.

Freeload sells advertising space – which Quinlan said is posted at “natural break points” in the text – to mainstream companies, like those in the electronics or music industry.

“We’re not pandering to off-the-beaten-track kind of companies; we try and draw a line between what’s right and isn’t,” he said.

Bob Crabb, director of University Bookstores, said Freeload’s concept is interesting even though it could compete with his stores for patrons.

“Potentially they’d be a competitor, sure, but I put my other hat – the ‘U’ student hat – (on and) I say whatever is best for the student is what we ought to be working toward,” he said. “If we can come up with a less expensive way of getting material to students than the current model then I darn well better be paying attention to that and see if there is some way I can help.”

Crabb said he is unsure why the e-textbook business hasn’t taken off yet.

“If it were economically feasible, I guess I would have expected it to go a little faster than it has,” he said.

Quality vs. cost
Although Quinlan and Doran cite quality as one of the driving forces behind Freeload’s success, faculty members electing to use an e-textbook will be forced to debate the merits of a lower-cost alternative to the traditional model.

Professor emeritus Dwight Brown said instructors must contemplate three main objectives when choosing a text: cost, timeliness and whether students will read the text.

Brown wrote “Biogeography of the Global Garden,” the textbook for a class at the University bearing the same name.

Brown said a proposition like Freeload’s almost surely would meet the first two objectives. The question, he said, is whether students would read a textbook mostly or entirely on their computer.

“My suspicion is it’s less likely to be read than by people who purchased hard-copy books,” he said.

Freeload offers hard-copy versions for a limited number of textbooks.

University Vice Provost and Dean Craig Swan said quality is the main concern.

If faculty members do not think quality of an e-textbook meets requirements, they should not feel pressured by the cost, he said.

“There are lots of things that are free that people don’t assign in class,” he said.

But, Swan said, textbook costs are a concern.

“That’s why I wouldn’t reject something like this out of hand if it helps to address this issue,” he said.

Finance junior Olzhas Alikhanov said even with ads, he definitely would go for an Internet version of a textbook, though it’s not as convenient as a printed text.

“If I bring my laptop along and sit down, the battery might go out,” he said. “There are more problems of bringing your computer and reading off of that then reading a book.”

Alikhanov also stressed quality as a necessity for textbooks.

“If the quality of the books is bad, the faculty should still have students buy books from the bookstore,” he said. “Education is everything, getting a better book and better authors would be a better idea.”