Bye-bye backpack? Online textbooks may soon lighten the load

College campuses of the future may be missing a universal element - backpack-toting students straining under the weight of their book loads.

The students will still be there, but the heavy textbooks might not be - replaced by lighter-weight electronic versions.

Internet software developers are joining forces with the textbook publishing industry to move books and other educational material online.

Two companies heading the effort - Universal Learning Technology (ULT) and Versaware Technologies, developers of Internet-based electronic publishing and learning software - say moving educational content onto the Web is learning's future because of its versatility.

Traditional textbooks are static, they argue. On the Web, information can be updated instantly, audio and video incorporated, additional learning supplements added, and material customized to a specific class's needs.

"The consumers are moving this," says Carol Vallone, president of ULT. "Think about the 18 and under group. They're all over the Internet."

Does this mean that all elementary school students will soon be lugging laptops instead of textbooks? The technology is still too new to tell how far it will go, says Ms. Vallone. And there will always be those who prefer the feel of pages to the click of a mouse.

Plus, the companies are focusing most of their attention on the higher-education market for now because colleges generally have the most technological resources (they're wired for the Internet and have plenty of computers) at their disposal.

And, too, the companies are limited by the number of publishers willing to license their products for print on the Web.

Versaware and ULT are competitors in the digital book industry and offer products with different features. ULT is marketing "Bravo!" which they say is more than a digital book because it allows professors to create content and customize existing material. Versaware's "Versabooks" are multimedia electronic books. Students pay for these tools just as they would a traditional textbook.

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