Online college texts are free, but not free from ads

When student Shah Nizami walked into the campus bookstore at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, last spring, he was told not to buy a textbook for his business finance class.

On the first day of the class, Mr. Nizami found out why: His finance professor, Yash Puri, told students they could download their books from the Web free of charge.

"I had already spent over $400 on books – when he said it was free, I was [relieved]," Nizami says, adding that the free textbook saved him about $150.

The catch? The books contain advertisements from a number of companies including FedEx Kinko's and Culver's – a fast-food restaurant in the Midwest.

The ads aim to lighten the financial burden on students created by rising textbook prices, yet some critics worry that they will dilute a book's editorial integrity.

Freeload Press began placing ads in its textbooks shortly after the company was formed two years ago. Based in St. Paul, Minn., Freeload publishes primarily business and finance books that are now used at more than 100 schools across the country. Students who register and complete a survey on the Freeload website can download a free PDF version of their textbook, print a copy, or send away for a bound version for about $30.

Textbooks: a weighty expense

Since textbooks are often the final expense students must absorb before classes begin, some choose to go without. According to a study last year by the National Association of College Stores Foundation, 65 percent of students aren't purchasing all their required course materials. And the key reason, says Tom Doran, cofounder and CEO of Freeload, is money.

"Textbooks cost too much, and students increasingly are showing up to class without probably the most important tool they need to succeed in the course, outside of the lecture," he says in a telephone interview.

College textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, according to an August 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office. It cites the addition of supplemental materials like CD-ROMs as a main factor for the increase. (This year, over a dozen state legislatures have rolled out bills aimed at reducing textbook costs.)

The idea of having ads in textbooks has its share of critics, especially since it gives advertisers a prime vehicle to reach a student demographic with an estimated $182 billion in spending power, according to Harris Interactive.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit aimed at containing commercial influence, calls the move another form of "ad creep" that filters "into every nook and cranny of our lives and culture." Companies are jockeying to "cultivate brand loyalty among people with a lot of disposable cash and a future of buying to come," he says.

Mr. Ruskin sees the ads as undermining the message that educators hope to convey. "The purpose of education is to, among other things, teach critical reasoning. The purpose of advertising is to subvert critical reasoning to promote the sale of a product."

Professor Puri's decision to use a free textbook in his finance class was a "natural option," he says, since he already provides free lecture notes and slides on his website. The fact that the textbooks contained ads was of less concern, he says, "because the students are bombarded by ads everywhere." A stroll through the cafeteria, using e-mail, or watching TV attests to this fact, he adds. "People learn to filter out what they don't want to see."

In Nizami's case, he "filtered" out the ads in his free textbook by printing out the PDF version and discarding the pages with ads. He also did a side-by-side comparison with similar books at the campus bookstore to reassure himself that the free textbook was up to par. "I didn't see any need for [the ads], I was never going to buy anything [from the advertisers], I just needed the book."

Free books scrutinized

In order for publishers of such books to succeed, they must emphasize the content and quality of their textbooks, not price, says Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication and the author of a forthcoming book, "Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age." "Professors are to some extent in the dark about the prices of the textbooks they order," he says.

Professor Puri says that he was comfortable with the content and quality of the textbook, especially since it was initially issued by Harper Collins. It was picked up by Freeload after a merger forced the previous publisher to drop the book. It was this "extensive editorial review process," among other reasons, that convinced the professor to reassign the book for the fall semester.

Lynne Pastor, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Pittsburgh, decided to use a Freeload book on cost accounting this summer after she was assured that student information from the required online surveys wouldn't be sold to third parties. "My only other concern was obviously the quality and content of the book," which she found to be comparable with other textbooks.

Freeload isn't proposing to replace traditional textbooks, Mr. Doran insists, but it is offering an alternative in the vein of "academic freedom." Freeload ads are pedagogically appropriate and won't interrupt the learning process, Doran says, because they are placed at the beginning or end of chapters. The business model will never interfere with the educational one, he adds.

Freeload only has about a dozen "seasoned academic authors" under contract, says Doran, so the model still has a way to go before its books become widely adopted. Doran hopes to attract authors beyond those who write on business and finance. The company is also interested rolling out in a "payload model," in which students would pay a small price for the e-books they download.

While Ruskin agrees that the cost of a college education is too high, he says that ad-funded textbooks are not the solution. "The answer is not to degrade the editorial integrity of our textbooks, the answer is to provide more financial aid and to do a thorough antitrust investigation of the textbook industry."

For the time being, however, educators and industry analysts agree that professors wield the greatest influence on whether the free textbooks will be recommended and used in classes.

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