Welcome to textbooks in a digital age

There’s been a change in the book industry; a shift into the virtual realm that has left no book, not even university textbooks unaffected.


These virtual course books are attained through passwords called access codes, which allow students to access web-based educational materials. Students attain the codes as encrypted CDs or printed passwords purchased through regular course packs and textbooks.


They are cost-effective; however, for those looking to purchase a used book at a low price, the codes come separately at an additional cost.


The price varies. Within a sealed course pack the cost is minimal, sometimes nothing. When bought separately, these codes can cost anywhere from $20 to $100.


“Students are buying used books thinking they are getting a deal, but could end up paying more with the additional cost of the access code,” says Carolyn Young, Communications Manager for The Book Store at Western.


Campus bookstores find themselves in the middle. Faculty members choose the content for their courses, the bookstore orders the codes, the publishers decide the price, and students have the option to purchase them. Students are often frustrated by the cost of supplementary codes, but publishers are merely providing a service, an additional option to the new course packs.


Furthermore, access codes expire. They are only usable by one person at a time, and get reset after a determined point. Some codes last for a half-term, or four months, while others a full year.


This means that students with borrowed or used textbooks are forced to purchase new codes. Moreover, some curious students activate the new codes in August, when they first purchase their books, and by the time exams come around in December, their codes have expired. Some publishers will extend the contract under special conditions, but it is the student’s responsibility to be cautious of expiry dates.


The necessity of codes can vary from course to course. Online materials contain virtual tutorials, practice tests, and study guides. They can be just as essential to succeeding in a course as a regular textbook, or depending on the professor, may never be used.


Today, publishers are advancing the value of the codes. Barb Lee, the Course Materials Coordinator at The Book Store at Western says: “Access codes have changed, the publishers have adapted. The codes are becoming more complex, with better quality and have really started to help students.” Course Materials Manager Gail Murray adds, “They are a good supplement to a book.”


Awareness is essential. Students need to be aware of the importance of keeping track of the codes. As Murray says, “These things come on a piece of cardboard and get tossed.”


The codes resemble a magazine subscription card and thus get thrown out, forcing the student to purchase another code. To the student entering the new virtual information textbook world, Murray advises: “Make sure you are getting a good deal buying used books, find out if an access code for online learning is required and compare prices to the new book, which includes the access code.”


The writer is a third-year student in Media Studies doing an internship for Western Retail Services and Western Libraries.