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Free e-books may be a bad deal

Free e-books may not be a good deal for tech-poor community college students, writes Dean Dad.

Textbook costs are a real issue for students at many community colleges. For the intro to biology sequence, for example, the textbook and lab manual combine to cost over three hundred dollars. That’s pretty close to the tuition and fees for the course.

Some professors use free e-books, data bases and web sites, such as Khan Academy, in place of high-cost textbooks, the dean writes. But some community college students don’t have an iPad and wi-fi.

We have computer labs on campus, but they’re frequently full. We have wifi on campus, more or less, but it still requires that the student provide the device. And when students are off campus, the cost of internet access falls on them. Given that students often do their reading and homework off campus, this is a major issue.

Mobile broadband seems like one possible solution, but in these parts, the coverage is spotty and maddeningly inconsistent. (Annoyingly, only one carrier has good enough coverage here to be a viable option, and even that one is flawed.)

Dead-tree books have the clear advantage of portability. A book that’s readable in the library is also readable in the cafeteria, on the bus, or at home, and at no additional cost. It doesn’t require the student to invest in infrastructure beyond a backpack and maybe a lamp.

As mobile broadband coverage improves, colleges will be able to lease 3G (or 4G) computers to students, the dean writes. “For now, freebies are only free if you can afford them.”