April 12, 2010 Last Updated 7:40 pm

CourseSmart launches iPad app; textbook prices remain very high; students will continue to seek alternatives

CourseSmart was one of the first companies to announce that they would be ready for the tablet era. Back in January the company released a demo video showing how they saw users buying and reading textbooks on tablets. A new iPad app has been released and the user experience is a mixed bag.
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College textbooks are one of the great outrages of modern life. Students, who often go into serious debt in order to get their college degrees, are charged ridiculous amounts for textbooks from publishers who hold monopolies on the titles. Publishers can argue (with some justification) about their own costs of publishing and updating these textbooks, but the result is that students spend a lot of time finding ways around incurring the high cost of textbooks. Today, for instance, most colleges give incoming freshmen estimates of between $1500 and $2000 per year.

CourseSmart’s iPad is really no app at all, but simply a way into their browser based store. Once the user has signed up, they will find that the eTextbooks are really 180 or 360 day subscriptions to the electronic texts.

Here are two examples of how the pricing compares to both Amazon and publisher-direct:

Biology Robert Brooker 1st Edition
CourseSmart $71.50 eTextbook
Amazon $139.60 Hardbound
McGraw-Hill $165.00 Hardbound
McGraw-Hill $90.75 eTextbook

Second example:

Abnormal Psychology Ann Kring et. al.
CourseSmart $75.50 eTextbook
Amazon $118.00 Hardbound
Amazon $73.20 Kindle
Wiley $91.50 eTextbook

Now I have to admit that I have no idea if either of these two examples are textbooks that are widely used. Both books, however, are easily found in a search on CourseSmart, Amazon and online, so I assume they are good test cases.

As I suspected months ago, CourseSmart is not offering major discounts over the prices that the publishers themselves are offering for electronic versions of the textbooks. Further, both books can be downloaded as PDFS through common file sharing outlets as students desperate to save money will do just about anything to lower their education costs.

(The advantage of the Kindle editions would appear that the owner can retain their electronic copy, while on CourseSmart the subscription runs out after 180 or 360 days.)

For students, eTextbooks are probably a good alternative to buying a new hardbound book — especially in classes outside their major. The real question for many students may be “can I secure a used copy that is below the cost of an eTextbook?”

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