Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

FSCJ's Alternative to Traditional Textbook Is Catching on; Other Colleges Have Picked Up Local School's Instructional Materials

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

FSCJ's Alternative to Traditional Textbook Is Catching on; Other Colleges Have Picked Up Local School's Instructional Materials

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT COLEMAN

The textbook is the bane of the college student's existence.

They're priced into the stratosphere. They're constantly being updated or revised. Some are heavy enough to be mistaken for free weights.

Those drawbacks got one Florida State College at Jacksonville administrator thinking: What would college life be like without the burden of ink and paper?

"Textbooks were the major complaint on campus," said Don Green, the school's executive vice president. "And no one across the nation seemed to be doing anything. So we devoted ourselves to replacing the textbook."

That was six years ago.

Today, the academic alternative is rapidly expanding. About 20 introductory courses have been distilled into low-cost, online/text hybrids that include video presentations, voice-overs and social networking functionality.

The average cost: about $50. Most introductory textbooks range from $150 to $250.

The college's work was rewarded in October with a $728,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, which is being used to enlist other institutions to create additional interactive courses.

The instructional materials have been picked up by 10 other colleges nationally. About 5,000 students - mostly from FSCJ - have tried out the program. Green said participating colleges will beta test the texts and help develop another 20 in the next three years.

"We learned the textbook is an antiquated concept," Green said. "The traditional textbook is only one little piece of the whole classroom environment. We need to do more for less cost."

The Sirius project - named after the brightest star in the night sky - started modestly.

Early iterations focused on distance learners - students who couldn't make it to class on a regular basis - with streamlined books of less than 150 pages paired with an interactive CD featuring online quizzes and study assistance.

But the forward march of technology allowed Sirius to evolve into a more robust teaching tool. The new version is a little bit textbook, little bit out-of-class tutor and a lot of interactive learning. Computer avatars guide students through digital class constructs, which simulate one-on-one sessions between teacher and student.

Just about everything was done in-house to keep costs down. Strangely enough, the only outside assistance came from Follett Higher Education Group, a textbook sales giant.

Follett provided its CafeScribe digital management software, which allows students to scribble notes, search and highlight words and network with other students.

The director of Follett's digital wing, Isabella Hinds, said the bookseller teamed with FSCJ because of the project's long-term implications. Hinds was brought in to anchor the company's digital strategies about a year ago, and she said her department has already tripled in size. She attributes that to digital textbooks gradually gaining ground on the traditional textbook market. …

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