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Antonio Sierra: Ebooks may bring relief to students

FRESNO,CA MTD TAO BOOKS3-- -Many of the books sold at the Fresno State bookstore come in shrink-wrapped packages which include a textbook, notebook, and CD. Feb 9, 2005. (Tomas Ovalle/The Fresno Bee)
FRESNO,CA MTD TAO BOOKS3-- -Many of the books sold at the Fresno State bookstore come in shrink-wrapped packages which include a textbook, notebook, and CD. Feb 9, 2005. (Tomas Ovalle/The Fresno Bee) Merced Sun-Star

When someone describes something as textbook, they mean to say that it's rigid, inflexible, and most likely, boring.

The textbook has been the bane of students since its inception.

Bulky, dry in content, and expensive, it's no wonder that the word textbook has come to have a negative connotation. But as technology advances, textbooks are starting to go through some transformations of their own.

Recently, all the UC campuses gained perpetual access to a database of 20,000 Springer eBooks. Every eBook is located online and easily accessible through the UCs Web site. Students can download books covering all the scientific disciplines and most of the social sciences.

The best part of this recent agreement between the UC's and Springer is that access to the database is completely free to students.

As textbooks continue to transition to the Internet format, students can allocate less of their budget toward traditional textbooks. Most textbooks cost $200 to $300 individually.

As you can imagine, buying textbooks for four or five classes per semester can get extremely expensive. Add that in with living expenses and the other costs accumulated over an average semester and it's easy to understand why students are protesting the recent tuition increases: There isn't a lot of money to spare.

Thankfully, UC Merced has been on the path to incorporating digital material for some time now.

The Core 1 class is a course that every student must take as a general education course. This interdisciplinary course posts almost all of its reading material on the web.

Instead of buying a book, students are required to read each week's reading and discuss it in class. Students save money, professors are allowed to be more flexible in their curriculum, and new ways of teaching and learning are utilized.

What's making Web-based textbooks even more appealing is the availability of e-readers and other technologies that allow people to take downloaded reading materials on the go.

Products such as the Kindle and Apple's new iPad can download multiple reading materials and store them in a portable device.

While this might seem like another wave of trendy gadgets, this could be the future in how students utilize texts. Buying a laptop or an e-reader and filling it with free or inexpensive eBooks makes more economic sense than buying multiple, expensive print textbooks.

This is learning in the age of the Internet: The basic fundamentals of education are still the same; it's just a matter of how it's being presented.

When the UCs agreed with Springer for use of their database, the UC system had no intention of reinventing the wheel.

Instead, this was approached as a natural progression in the evolution of education. Much like the transitions from abacuses to calculators and typewriters to word processors, the complete digitalization of textbooks is a triumph for students everywhere.

Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight.

Print textbooks will still have their place in the classroom in the near future. But it does excite me on the possibilities of the future. One thing that UC Merced has shown is that it has a strong commitment to seeking the answers for the future instead of clinging onto the standards of yesterday.

A university built in the 21st century should embody the ideas and progress of the new millennium. As far as I can see, UC Merced is on the right track in this regard.

Another exciting prospect is the ripple effects a successful textbook database could have. Similar to when a scientific discovery made at a UC can benefit the everyday citizen, successful experiments in curriculum can have a trickle-down effect to students in public schools and students all around the world.

Imagine the possibilities of having high school students being able to interact with technology to learn both how to utilize technology positively and the fundamental subjects high schools have taught for years.

UC Merced as taken the first step toward innovating the way students use textbooks.

At this point, the partnership with Springer eBooks is still an experiment to see how students and faculty might take advantage of web-based texts.

If the success of UC Merced is any indication, this experiment in ingenuity has a good chance of proving its worth.

Antonio Sierra is a literature major and writing minor at UC Merced. He is from Los Angeles.