by Heather B. Hayes
When Mirta Martin took over as dean of the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business at Virginia State University nearly two years ago, she soon discovered a shocking fact: Only 47 percent of students were purchasing textbooks for their courses. Why? They couldn’t afford them.
The average business textbook costs $275, high for VSU business school students, nearly all of whom are on financial aid. Instead of buying textbooks, they would borrow them, check them out at the library or rely only on their lecture notes. The results were not good. “I was told right off the bat when I got here that, on average, our kids were having to repeat classes four times,” she says.
These discoveries, among others, led Martin to try a new approach. During the 2010-11 academic year, the school began utilizing digital textbooks in nine courses and will expand the program to other courses this year. The School of Business, which also has revamped its curriculum and upgraded its entry standards, is the first in the country to deliver course material in a predominantly digital format.
Martin is quick to point out that digital textbooks are not the popular eBooks, which require a special reader and cannot be changed or modified. Instead, digital textbooks can be downloaded to a laptop, an iPad, a smartphone or even a Kindle device. Students can read digital textbooks online, listen to them and print out whole chapters. Moreover, faculty can update course content in the middle of the term by simply inputting links to new material, such as just-in-time case studies. And the cost? Just $20 per textbook.
The switch appears to have made a significant difference, Martin says. Preliminary studies from the pilot project show a major improvement in course attrition rates. Previously, each course would lose 10 to 12 students, but this past semester, only one to two students withdrew from each course. Martin says that additional studies that are not yet final appear to show that the average student GPA in those courses also increased.
Moreover, the curriculum overhaul and the digital integration program appear to have had a positive effect on the school’s reputation: After years of flat growth, the business school will enjoy a two-fold increase in the number of declared majors — despite a recent decision to raise the minimum entrance requirement from a 2.25 GPA to a 2.75.
“It’s phenomenal,” Martin says. “All of this supports the point I have been singing and telling the world: My kids have the intellect and the ability to succeed. All they needed was the resources, and now they have them.”
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