Heidi Williams is teaching a classroom of 30 students about the writing process. It’s week two of freshman English at Tennessee State University.
“Open up your books on your tablets to chapter 13,” she says.
She’s referring to the ASUS 7-inch tablets that the university distributed to freshmen last week. It’s part of the university’s efforts to make textbooks more affordable: A new $365 student fee covers the cost of the device and of digital textbooks for their general education classes.
School officials estimate that swapping physical textbooks for e-books saves students hundreds of dollars. And by giving students a tablet, the university is hoping they’ll actually use the materials — which, over time, will increase graduation rates to those for whom cost of supplies is often a financial burden.
“It’s a way for the teachers to gain ground and bridge the digital divide,” says TSU Spokeswoman Kelli Sharpe. “This generation of students, they have grown up with cell phones, tablets, mobile devices, and what better way to meet them where they are?”
In Williams’ English class, many freshmen have pulled up the PowerPoint and are taking notes on their tablets.
But there are technical difficulties. One student says he doesn’t know his login password. Another says the link to the e-textbook isn’t working. And others aren’t using a tablet at all.
Williams says some students still hesitate around new technology.
“It’s a little bit of a learning curve,” she says. She wants students to think of this tablet as their cell phone, something they use all the time, “and not be so fearful of a new item. It’s all literacy, enhancing digital literacy.”
One student who has embraced his tablet is 18-year-old Julian Robinson, a computer science major from Baltimore, Md. He says he’s doing well — and saving money — without physical textbooks.
“I don’t think I need one,” he says. “The fact that I can highlight things on my tablet is definitely a plus.”
A Matter Of Time
For students who still want hard copies of textbooks, the university has partnered with publishers to get them to students cheaply. It costs an extra $15 to $30.
Only one student has asked Williams so far about buying a physical textbook. “She wasn’t very comfortable with the tablet yet, and she didn’t want to get behind,” Williams says.
It’s just a matter of time, she says, before the whole class is using their tablets. They have to become more familiar with the device and work through the technical glitches first. But even now, Williams says, the situation is preferable to previous semesters, when some students never bought their textbooks at all because they couldn’t afford them.