Thursday, June 18, 2009

E-textbooks Experiences

The Chronicle of Higher Education for June 12, 2009 carries this interesting story in the Information Technology Section ( Link), in print at p. A18. “6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks” discusses the experiences of Northwest Missouri State University in offering electronic textbooks widely on campus last year.

They began with a pilot program offering students a Sony Reader (which company was more responsive to their phone calls than the Amazon Kindle folks). The first experiments were sobering, though, because the klunky interface made the early adopters request print again. Happily, a newer version works better.

All four major textbook publishers for the undergraduate market wanted to participate. They see this as the future, and felt they must adapt or die. Book publishers of all types are apparently rushing into the digital book market for the same reason. Amazon just announced its new Kindle will be specially designed to handle textbooks, and according to the Chronicle article, six colleges will be testing it in the fall of 2009. (link for Wall Street Journal article discussing Amazon Kindle for textbooks. Participating schools are Case Western Reserve, Pace, Princeton, Reed, Darden School at the University of Virginia, and Arizona State. I think I recall Marie Newman blogging bemusedly about reading about Pace's participation.)

The article is worth reading in full, but here is a summarization of the six lessons derived from the Northwest Missouri State experience.

1. Judge e-books by their covers
That is, by their interface and hardware. Customer satisfaction rests heavily on the design of the device and its software. How easily can the user flip pages, locate text, highlight material, enlarge tables? Does it handle color? Can it work on laptops or is it designated for a certain reader machine? How heavy is it? How long does it take to learn to use?

2. Learning curves ahead
Students and faculty alike will benefit from scheduling time to explain how to make the best use of the new device. Students had to adapt previous note-taking techniques, and often commented that it took them time to find wonderful new features on their e-books.

3. Professors are eager students
Northwest Missouri State was surprised at the number of professors who clamored to be included in their experiment. They were afraid they would have trouble roping in a handful, but were inundated with petitions from entire departments.

4. Long live batteries
The students’ most frequent technical difficulty was battery life. Laptops’ batteries frequently die after one and a half hours, which does not take a student through a full day of classes. Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle batteries last significantly longer, though. And most law schools today, have easy-to-reach outlets in classrooms.

5. Subjects are not equally e-friendly
Math-heavy subjects are difficult in digital formats because the tables and formulas are difficult to read without easy enlargement. Tables are usually pop-up affairs that cannot be enlarged, and this makes digital versions very hard to read. Also, the Kindle and Sony Reader do not handle color. In fields like anatomy, geography or many science textbooks, grayscale does not adequately translate the information that was originally in color. This objection is probably not applicable to most law fields.

6. Environmental impact matters
E-textbooks save trees. I frankly don’t know how the complex analysis would go for all the heavy metals and plastics that go into a digital reader or laptop, but the mere re-usability of the hardware over the life of multiple textbooks probably outweighs other quibbles about lifetime environmental impact.

An interesting article and analysis. I still have not heard from Gordon Russell at Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law in Tennessee about whether their Kindle textbook program has even gotten off the ground. Has any other law school experimented with school-wide or recent class-wide digital textbooks? The last experiment I knew of was 10 or more years ago, and is quite outdated. Prof. Carter Bishop here at Suffolk had his students use his textbook in a CD-ROM version. It could be highlighted, and marginal notes could be made. But I think it was a bust from the students’ point of view. At that point, they wanted the book in print, not as a disk to run on their computer and laptop.

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