Starting this fall, students at seven dental schools will be spared the strain of toting heavy textbooks to and from the library. They won't even need to go to the bookstore to buy a single textbook, workbook or laboratory manual.
Instead, each incoming student will be asked to purchase a DVD containing the entire curriculum -- textbooks, manuals and lecture slides -- for all four years of dental school. Each semester, students will trade the old DVD for an updated version. Creators of the technology estimate that the DVD's, each weighing less than an ounce, will replace more than 2 million pages, thousands of images and more than 400 pounds of books and manuals.
"It essentially provides all of the textbooks, all the course syllabi, all of the handouts and most of the images that faculty will be using throughout the entire curriculum from the first day of class," said Fred Moore, associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Dentistry at New York University, which is participating in the project.
Educators and electronic publishers have talked for years about the advantages of creating digital replacements for heavy and often quickly outdated printed textbooks. But digital textbooks have been slow to appear, a lag that has been attributed to everything from technological limitations to publishers' fears of copyright infringements. Most students still buy printed textbooks, although many books now come with CD-ROM's that provide supplementary material.
The dental schools' use of DVD's is a sudden leap forward. Experts in textbook publishing say it is the first time that digital content has completely replaced books for all students in a school. And it is almost surely the first time that an institution of higher education has attempted to put an entire curriculum -- from handouts to manuals -- in one integrated electronic format for all four years of a degree program.
Still, whether students will embrace an entirely digitized curriculum is an open question.
Some digital-textbook experiments have shown that students facing a lot of reading prefer printed books, said Gary Shapiro, senior vice president for intellectual property at Follett, a company that manages college bookstores. Follett, for example, has conducted focus groups to test students' reactions to online or CD versions of textbooks. Based on the company's findings, Mr. Shapiro said, "It is unlikely that a student will sit in front of a computer and read a textbook."
Price is another issue. Because the disks are designed to include four times as much material as students are typically asked to buy, the price for DVD's, or for other digital vehicles for presenting information -- will be anything but cheap.
Developers say that a DVD with updates will cost roughly the same as the total for the books students are expected to buy now: $3,000 to $6,000, paid over time. And coordinators of the project acknowledge that students will have no choice but to buy all the books they might use in four years, instead of picking and choosing.
Still, Wayne Loney, a third-year dental student who tested the concept, said he thought that students would accept the cost.
"You're paying for more convenience," said Mr. Loney, a student at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, where the project originated. "If I had to leave for the weekend, all I had to do was just take my Powerbook and fire it up from wherever I was."
The software's searching capabilities provided an even more important convenience, Mr. Loney said. "If I was looking for a piece of information, all I had to do was type it in, and the software would give me a list of every place that topic came up."
Even images of microscope slides could be found with a simple search. "It was like we had a full-blown histology lab at our fingertips," he said.
It was the integration of four years' worth of laboratory slides, textbook entries and professors' manuals that provided the impetus for adopting the DVD model, administrators and professors say.
"The first year of school is basic science, and sometimes students fail to see the relevance of that to what they will need to know," said Pamela Jones, co-director of the project at the dental school at the University of Buffalo, which announced its participation two weeks ago.
But, Dr. Jones said, once students are able to search across all four years' worth of educational material, they will see the connections. A student in an introductory anatomy class, for example, could search the word "maxilla" and discover how an understanding of the jaw's structure would help in advanced orthodontics classes.
The other four participants are the dental schools of Boston University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the University of Florida at Gainesville and the United States Navy Postgraduate Dental School.
The project was something of a surprise to observers of the nascent digital-textbook industry, some of whom expressed admiration for the dental schools' aggressive approach. "It's the kind of experiment that needs to be done," said Mr. Shapiro, of Follett. "It will be fascinating to see how the students react to it."
But some experts said that publishers of dental textbooks might be better situated than other textbook makers for a transition from print to digital. Because there are fewer than 10 publishers of dental textbooks, it may be easier for dental schools and software makers to agree on how to create digital textbooks, industry experts say.
And the ease of searching digital information may be more appealing to dental students, who often use their textbooks as references to be read in short chunks instead of as continuous text, chapter by chapter.
The structure of dental education also helps, administrators say. Within a school, dental students take virtually the same classes, are taught from the same books and are asked to read the same manuals and handouts. Each dental school will choose the books, handouts and slides that will appear on the DVD developed for that school.
In addition to the curriculum DVD, students will have to buy a laptop with a DVD player. Most students, administrators say, will add the cost of the computers and the DVD's to their requests for financial aid.
Part of the dental schools' strategy in making these purchases mandatory is to ensure that the computers and disks qualify for federal education loans, which cover only required materials.
To further help with the costs of the laptops, the schools are talking with computer manufacturers to come up with four-year leasing programs.
Meanwhile, a company called Vital Source Technologies has been digitizing hundreds of textbooks, manuals and professors' handouts to be included in the DVD's.
The company, which is based in Raleigh, N.C., has also been negotiating with publishers on behalf of universities to license the books in electronic form. (It will not disclose the publishers' names until a formal announcement is made on April 1, but representatives at the universities have said that most major dental textbook publishers are involved.)
The company's main contribution, however, is its technology. Todd Watkins, the founder of Vital Source, has developed software that will enable students to do several things with the same set of digitized materials. During an interview in his office this week, he demonstrated how it worked:
Clicking on a title opens a window showcasing a book's cover. By clicking on each page, students can turn pages as if they were reading a printed book. Students will also be able to search for specific words as they appear in the table of contents of one book, the full text of one book or the full text of all books and images that are included on the DVD. They will also be able to create online bookshelves containing anything they wish to link together, like chapters from several books that are related to the same topic.
Dr. Watkins, who has a degree in dentistry, said his training brought him much closer to understanding students' needs. He came up with the idea for a fully searchable electronic curriculum almost 10 years ago, when he was a new faculty member at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, where he also conducted research on how information technology could be used in education.
Health-science textbooks seemed ideal for digitizing, Dr. Watkins said, because they are so expensive to print. Many textbooks, for example, present diagrams in black-and-white, a process that costs less than color. But in digital textbooks, color can be used liberally with no added cost. Dr. Watkins said publishers had already begun sending him color versions of diagrams for the DVD's to replace the black-and-white diagrams in printed textbooks.
In 1995, Dr. Watkins started to test versions of his software with groups of students at the university. A few years later, he asked William Chesser, a childhood friend with a background in education issues, to help him design more substantial trials. Mr. Chesser is now the company's vice president.
Kenneth Kalkwarf, the dean at the Texas dental school, also got involved, urging Dr. Watkins and Mr. Chesser to experiment with digital content in all the courses, instead of focusing on one textbook for one course.
Dr. Kalkwarf soon put together the seven-school consortium.
"It is the universities that are demanding this," Dr. Watkins said. "We were never a technology in search of a market. We are essentially trying to solve problems with technology."
The rise of digital textbooks, electronic publishers say, may also halt a nontechnological trend that has worried many schools: Students, it turns out, are not always buying the books that professors assign. Although national data about students' book-purchasing habits have not been collected recently, some industry experts estimate that as many as 50 percent of students in some fields are either buying used editions or none at all. In dental schools, the trend may be even more pronounced.
Vital Source found that in some classes, only 10 percent of dental students bought the books a professor listed on a syllabus.
"Textbooks are so expensive," Dr. Watkins said; they cost $100 to $200 on average. "Students are basically having to decide whether to buy a book or pay the rent," Dr. Watkins added. From what he has seen, he said, students get by with a hodgepodge of materials based on chapters photocopied from textbooks in the library, paperback workbooks and handouts from professors.
By asking students to buy a DVD containing all the assigned books, school administrators say, they are hoping to make the content more accessible -- even if it means that students have to pay for more material than some of them expected.
"We're making sure that we are putting into the hands of our students all the materials that they are expected to have," said Dr. Jones, at Buffalo's dental school. "This way we are getting around the problem of students' not buying textbooks."
And publishers are starting to embrace the idea of digital books for exactly that reason. Their logic goes like this: If the books are searchable, if they can be updated with a few clicks and an online connection, and if they can be as weightless as digital bits, students might actually spend money on them instead of bypassing the cash register in favor of the photocopy machine.
McGraw-Hill, a publisher that is responsible for a few thousand textbooks, has started packaging CD-ROM's with textbooks to give students enhanced versions of the printed material. The main point of the CD-ROM's, which include animation and video, is to "help students learn more quickly," said Henry Hirschberg, McGraw-Hill's group president for higher-education, professional and international publishing.
But the enhancements are also part of the company's strategy to stay competitive and sell more books.
Electronic books, for example, can be revised much more often and more cheaply than their printed versions, and professors may be more inclined to encourage students to buy new CD-based editions instead of relying on used but still current books.
To make the electronic versions of its textbooks, McGraw-Hill has hired Versaware, an electronic-book publisher that is working with nearly 100 traditional publishers to digitize their books. By the beginning of the next school year, 30 to 50 popular college-level textbooks will be available on CD or through the Web, said Julie Greenblatt, Versaware's vice president for business development.
The company is also creating online spaces where students can create electronic libraries stocked with books they have bought and downloaded. (Some examples can be found on Ebookcity.com.)
"The technology absolutely supports" the kind of integration the dental schools have adopted, Ms. Greenblatt said. Logistics and politics are now the only barriers to having searchable digital content available throughout high schools and colleges. For example, some publishers are still leery of having their content integrated with materials from competitors, she said.
But Ms. Greenblatt said those hurdles could be overcome, especially considering the current drive to embrace distance learning.
By 2002, she said, nearly 80 percent of universities are expected to have some kind of online courses. Digital textbooks, she said, go hand in hand with that trend.
"In the next five years," she predicted, "you will have pervasive electronic content."
For now, professors and administrators in the seven dental schools are eager to see how the DVD's will change the way members of next year's class absorb and understand what they have been taught.
"Students will be taught more concepts and be given more strategies to access much broader sources of information," said Dr. Moore, of N.Y.U. "This changes the whole paradigm for learning."