E-Books and Textbooks – Not Quite there Yet

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides this vignette of Northwest Missouri State University and it’s efforts to go all-electronic with its textbooks.  While the notion of providing or requiring incoming students to pick up an electronic book reader and load it with textbooks has its appeal (lower cost to the student over the course of their education, easier updates, less paper used), the technology isn’t quite ready for textbook reading.  The Chronicle piece describes several important points here (power demands over a long school day, funtionality within the text, lack of color display), but the main conclusion that things aren’t as easy with e-books as initially thought comes down to differences in reading.

Many people read differently on the Web, or in newspapers, compared to a novel, and the same is true for textbooks.  There’s a fair amount of skimming going on, flipping to the table of contents and/or index, and other fast motion that current e-book readers aren’t well-suited for (or online reading through something like Google Book Search).  E-book readers don’t appear to be able to handle sidebars, text boxes, and other graphic design elements common to many textbooks.  To force textbook migration to these devices right now would seem like taking a step back to take a step forward.

When will we know if e-books have acheived the maturity to function well in the textbook area?  Let me suggest if you take the same kind of survey that was done of the NW Missouri State students and the precentage who study more because of the e-books dwarfs the percentage who study less for that reason, then more widespread adoption makes sense.  A survey in March indicated 40 percent of students studied less due to the e-book readers, while only 17 percent studied more.

Some steps can be taken in the interim.  As the Chronicle piece notes, some students opted for a program allowing them to download and read textbooks on their laptops.  Course packets could migrate to portable document formats (though academic permission to copy digitally isn’t considered equivalent to paper copies).

That said, I think it important to note that not everything used in the classroom may be available digitally.  The lack of a digital format should not – I think – be the sole reason not to use a work in a class.  Similarly, people should not be so quick to push e-book readers for classes just because they are here.

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