6 Things to Know About Textbooks for Online Courses

Laptop with library

There are several ways to buy – and save on – textbooks. (Getty Images)

When Regina Kizer took online nursing classes in two graduate nursing degree programs, she bought textbooks in all different formats.

“I’ve tried eBooks; I’ve tried Kindle. I’ve tried purchasing them in hardback, and I’ve rented them as well,” says the 45-year-old Oklahoma resident, who earned a nursing master’s and doctoral degree from Frontier Nursing University.

She says the decision to buy or rent textbooks – either from the school or elsewhere – in part boiled down to whether she planned to continue using the textbook as a career resource once a class finished. If so, she typically chose to purchase textbooks, often in print.

[Read: 4 Reasons Online Learning Works for Working Adults.]

“There’s something about having a book in front of you where you can flip through the pages and go to the information that you need,” says Kizer, though she acknowledges that individual students’ preferences will vary.

If a student is simply fulfilling general education requirements as an undergraduate, Kizer says, it may make more sense to rent textbooks.

Here are six things experts say prospective and incoming online students should know before they either buy or rent textbooks for their program’s courses.

Print textbooks are sometimes required but may also be available in the digital format. “More and more, textbook publishers these days are also making digital versions of their textbooks, so that’s always an option that’s available, too,” says Jessie Guy-Ryan, associate director of online learning at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. “And sometimes, that could be more convenient, especially if an online student is someone who is working a lot and maybe wants the convenience of being able to read their book on their commute really easily or something like that.”

Specific requirements for textbooks, including print versus digital format, will vary depending on the class, experts say.

When it comes to digital rentals, “Sometimes it would be the title may be available for 180 days or maybe 365 days,” says Kathy Highbaugh, manager of quality assurance for Learning Design at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus. “So there are a variety of options. Depending what format the learner is comfortable with, they have a wide range of options.”

Some online courses are going textbook-free. Certain professors may not assign any textbooks and will simply have students download a series of journal articles and other reading materials at no cost.

Other online courses may utilize Open Educational Resources, or OERs, which are free materials on the internet that are often available to anyone and are produced through university, state or federally funded projects, says Tony Contento, program manager for the School of Professional Studies at Colorado State University—Global Campus.

“What they represent is a free resource for students designed by active professors,” Contento says. “And sometimes these professors even design other materials – videos, interactives, assessments – for student and faculty use.”

Online students need to be proactive about buying and returning textbooks. That’s in part because they typically have less face-to-face interaction with professors compared with on-campus students. With fewer reminders, there may be greater pressure on online students to take the initiative to check the requirements each semester and remember to return rentals.

[Read: 4 Ways to Communicate With Professors in Online Courses.]

Especially in online courses, where there may be additional types of required digital materials – practice exams, for instance, or extra media content – students should check whether they need additional access codes and what costs, if any, those may entail, experts say.

“All students – not just CSU—Global students – but all students should be proactive about textbook purchases,” Contento says. “They should always try to get the syllabus as early as they can. They should learn about what books and other resources are required for the course.”

Requirements and costs aren’t always the same for online and on-campus students. Don’t assume that an online student’s textbook requirements and costs will match those of on-ground students, experts say. Make sure you research this information for your class section specifically, and reach out to the professor with any questions.

Guy-Ryan says at NYU Tandon, the curricula for online and on-campus students are essentially the same, and therefore so are the textbook requirements.

But Highbaugh says requirements may or may not be the same for students at Penn State. It’s also difficult to compare costs as online and traditional students buy their textbooks from separate bookstores, Highbaugh adds.

There are several ways to buy – and save on – textbooks. For example, students may be able to avoid spending money on textbooks altogether if they can check out a certain book at their local or university library, Contento says.

Used textbooks can sometimes be cheaper if a student buys them from Amazon as opposed to the school’s bookstore, experts say, though some course materials may only be available through the school.

“I would always try to find the most affordable place to get the books that I needed. Sometimes that was from the college, and the majority of the time it was from Amazon,” says Kizer. Another option, she adds, is to find other online students who recently took a class who can sell or rent their books at lower costs.

For any student who decides to get used textbooks online, “You want to buy early and away from the typical on-ground university start time. So you don’t want to buy in August, and you don’t want to buy in the beginning of January,” Contento says, noting that the prices of used and sometimes new textbooks typically drop outside of the rush periods for most online retailers. And since most online programs have multiple start dates throughout the year versus operating on a traditional semester calendar, this allows online students to take advantage of off-peak buying.

To potentially get some money back, Contento says, “If you know you’re not going to use that textbook after the course, as soon as the course is over, sell your textbook back online. Use the exact same place you bought the textbook from and sell it back.”

[Read: 7 Ways to Reduce the Cost of an Online Degree.]

Regardless of where online students get their textbooks, they should double-check the course requirements and the books’ ISBN numbers to make sure they are purchasing the correct version, Highbaugh says.

You should weigh whether to keep a textbook as a career resource. As Kizer does, students may want to keep textbooks after a course is over if it relates directly to their current or future job.

This is something prospective students should consider when deciding whether they want to buy or rent physical or digital textbooks, depending on which they prefer. Kizer has a pretty extensive library of textbooks and uses those materials in her practice.

One downside to keeping physical print textbooks? They can get heavy, Kizer says – one reason she sometimes preferred the digital option. On occasion, she brought the digital version along too if she was traveling.

“That was really great for my back and not having to carry around these big textbooks with me everywhere I went,” Kizer says

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