STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You know, I've still got a few of my old college textbooks, and it turns out that they could become relics. Some professors and students are selecting digital versions of books that can be read off a computer screen. And one college in Missouri is the first trying to go entirely book free.
Sylvia Maria Gross from member station KCUR paid a visit.
SYLVIA MARIA GROSS: Most college students are used to going online for music, videos and news, so why not textbooks? At Northwest Missouri State, all students are issued a laptop when they arrive on campus. Just before his business finance class begins, junior Kevin Green takes out his laptop and clicks on his textbook.
Mr. KEVIN GREEN (Junior, Northwest Missouri State): I've read it some. I find it easy to just go through it as he discusses it in class and highlight things as he brings them up.
GROSS: Green is one of 500 students testing out digital textbooks this semester, and they're wondering how they'll change the way they study. Freshman Lindsey Rheuport is just downloading her text for intercultural communications.
Ms. LINDSEY RHEUPORT (Freshman, Northwest Missouri State): I like having the book in front of me so I can, like, flip back and forth really fast and, like, put Post-it notes up in the corners of important pages.
GROSS: Some e-textbooks are just on-screen versions of the bound copies. But the new books are interactive. You can search, mark pages, highlight, and cut and paste passages, even share notes in a kind of social network with the rest of your class - or click on a video.
Unidentified Man: Riding upon a semi-plastic layer of Earth's fiery interior, the ocean floors and continents that form its crust or a lithosphere are in continuing motion.
GROSS: The new generation of textbooks is trying to be in tune with the way students learn in the age of Wikipedia and YouTube. And textbook writers will have to keep up, according to Frank Lyman. He works at CourseSmart, a digital distributor that's working with nine major publishers.
Mr. FRANK LYMAN (CourseSmart): Now, what you're looking for in an author is a Steven Spielberg. You're looking for somebody who can be the producer, have the vision for what the learning experience should be.
GROSS: Not everyone is ready to relinquish the heavy old tomes. Northwest Missouri State President Dean Hubbard says when he discussed the plans to move away from physical books on campus, some professors had tears in their eyes.
Dr. DEAN HUBBARD (President, Northwest Missouri State): And the philosophy professor talked about books that were so important to him that he took them and had them leather-bound. But then he ended up saying, this is the way things are going, and we're going to go with it.
GROSS: Professors across the country are assigning e-books. Eighteen percent of college students have purchased them, according to the National Association of College Stores. But Northwest Missouri State is in a unique position to go entirely digital. In addition to the laptops, students rent all their textbooks from the college. So when a comprehensive selection became available digitally, President Hubbard decided to make the switch.
Dr. HUBBARD: The timing is just right. Everybody is anxious about the cost of higher education going up.
GROSS: College textbooks are part of that. One book can cost upwards of $200. E-book versions cost about half that. Some students still need convincing, though. About half at this school say they still prefer physical textbooks. But human resources instructor Allison Strong says she's already noticing students are more likely to bring their laptops than textbooks to class.
Professor ALLISON STRONG (Human Resources, Northwest Missouri State): I just remind them again, you know, review this chapter, probably more so than I did so before, because I think they're actually going to read it more this time.
GROSS: As students trade their books for laptops, publishers and academics alike are watching the transition, which could have profound changes on higher education.
For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Maria Gross in Kansas City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.