In just a few years, bulky textbooks will likely be a thing of the past for Southern University students. In an effort to lighten the load — and expense — on students, the university is embracing the iPad.

Starting with the fall 2016 semester, every entering freshman at Southern University will be required to have one of the Apple tablet devices, which they will use to download cheaper e-books to use in class. The effort will be piloted at the Baton Rouge campus, but all Southern University campuses have been engaged in the effort, which will likely expand throughout the public historically black college system.

“From our perspective, we believe that having technology is just as important as having anything else as far as higher education goes,” said Carlos Thomas, the university’s interim vice president for information technology. “That’s the goal, to have a completely mobile environment where the students are engaged digitally.”

Under a plan that still needs final authorization from the Southern University Board of Supervisors, the Baton Rouge campus would begin issuing every entering freshmen iPads that they will then pay for through a fee added to their tuition bills. Once they’ve paid for it, the device becomes theirs. They will use them to download textbooks for all of their freshman-level courses.

The program will continue with each freshman class after that. By 2020, few, if any, students would still be relying on paper textbooks, Thomas said.

Supporters say the idea offers many benefits to students.

“We were just exploring ways to help our students on campus through mobile technology,” said Francesca M. Mellieon-Williams, Southern’s coordinator of academic technology and innovation.

One of the biggest benefits students will immediately notice: they won’t have to worry about the skyrocketing costs of textbooks.

A recent report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found the average student could pay as much as $1,200 a year on books and other classroom supplies. Nearly half of the students surveyed for the report said the costs of textbooks had influenced what courses they signed up for, and many were forced to forgo pricey textbooks at the risk of it hurting their grades.

Williams said some Southern University students have been forced to hold off on buying their textbooks — sometimes for several weeks — because they don’t have the money.

The new system, she hopes, will eliminate that dilemma.

“When students arrive on campus, they will have the materials to succeed in the class,” she said. “They have everything they need.”

Southern has been looking at similar programs at Jackson State in Mississippi and Lynn College in Florida, which have seen success. Southern University also is working directly with Apple on the project.

Scott Wicker, a chemistry professor at Southern, already has implemented several innovative uses of technology in his classroom. Student attendance is taken via their smartphones, and students can follow along with his presentations on their mobile devices or computers.

Aside from the textbook feature, he said he looks forward to being able to have his students use their new iPads in the classroom.

“I think it’s going to be great,” he said. “It’s going to be efficient for the professors and the students.”

The whole plan relies heavily on professor involvement. Professors will likely publish or personalize the e-books students download. The books will go through the same review and publishing process to ensure quality.

“We’re looking to really tie the Southern brand to digital tools being used in course delivery,” Thomas said.

Thomas said Jackson State has used the new process to generate funds for various departments. Under the Apple arrangement, 70 percent of the e-book’s cost goes to the authors, while 30 percent goes to help support the iTunes platform.

“They’ve used that to generate a revenue stream for things, including sending faculty to conferences,” he said.

For the past several weeks, faculty on campus have been undergoing training for the iPad switch. Williams said efforts are being aided by a $15,000 grant from the state Board of Regents intended to enhance technology. Infrastructure to support the program includes upgrades to the university’s campus wireless Internet.

“When you talk about having 30 to 40 iPads in a classroom, you’re talking about more stress on your network,” Thomas said.

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