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Electronic textbooks: set to take over?

With devices like the Kindle now available in Canada, e-textbooks are poised to push out traditional paper books – or are they?


After years of false starts, years of hearing experts herald the advent of a new era, it appears that the day of the electronic textbook has, at long last, arrived.

Or maybe not. Actually, it depends on who you ask.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is certainly a believer. He announced, “It’s nonsensical and expensive to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form.” Holding up four heavy textbooks, he joked that he could use them as weights in his legendary workout sessions and proclaimed a plan to move California’s high school students to e-texts, starting with math and science.

Surprisingly, perhaps the biggest stumbling block has been a reluctance on the part of students – those much celebrated Wizards of the Web and Masters of Technology – to adapt and use e-textbooks. Complaining about usability, device issues and poor value for money, students who routinely get their movies and music online are still consistently opting for thick, clunky old-school books when given a choice.

Which makes one wonder: has the era of the e-textbook really arrived (and if not, will it ever)?

The issue is a rather complicated one. Electronic textbooks in their simplest and earliest form were basic, static PDF copies of a printed text but they’ve become much more sophisticated and user-friendly in recent years. Today’s e-texts include all sorts of valuable and neat functions that make it possible to host simulated labs for science courses, show video recordings of lectures, give students instant feedback and let students interact with their peers.

In the past few months, the California company CourseSmart LLC rolled out a new iTunes application that will let iPhone and iPod touch users download more than 7,000 CourseSmart textbooks to their devices. As well, Amazon unveiled its new Kindle DX, now available in Canada. Unlike earlier versions, the device has a larger screen that’s well suited to the dimensions of a textbook. Amazon is running an e-text experiment on Kindle at seven U.S. universities and getting generally positive feedback from students. Meanwhile, textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Higher Education is offering a new line of e-texts with a number of sizzle features, from “lecture capture” software to an instant-grading feature that automatically evaluates the answers to online questions asked by the professor and sends a report of the results to both instructor and student.

Things have changed, and the most dramatic changes have taken place in the last few years, reflected in an overall shift in mood among faculty. “I think the e-book market is just at that point of awareness, and we’re moving to the point of acceptance,” says Dr. Bonk. “Once we get more people accepting e-books as an option, or the option, within classes, then I think we’ll see publishers jumping in even further than they are now.”Curtis Bonk, a professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University, recalls how different things were when he wrote his first electronic book in 2000. “Nine years ago, publishers didn’t even know how to price e-books. One day we’d hear about the great e-book market and how everyone’s flocking to them, and then the next month there would be this collapse in the e-book market – it was just so fickle for years and years,” says Dr. Bonk, who recently published The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.

It’s clear that a number of professors and students see the benefits in getting on board. Anne Jordan, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, wrote an e-textbook and used it to teach graduate students in her special-education class. She had an excellent experience, saying she is “absolutely sold on it.” The online textbook allowed her to integrate video, drag-and-drop exercises, pre-test quizzes, individual feedback and other interactive features.

“It’s a completely different way of teaching from lecturing and having people go and do readings and write reports,” she says. “The interactivity makes it a much more personal learning experience.”

One feature allowed her to show students case-study videos. In this function, students would watch a video of a child with learning difficulties, then respond with their thoughts on the source of the difficulty, receive feedback from the professor and then design a program to help the child, addressing various levels of questions. “Unlike a print book, where you tell them how to deal with it, you can have them work out how to deal with it, and then the system can respond to how well they’ve figured it out, and guide them,” Dr. Jordan explains.

Chris Martin, a political science, theatre and film student at McMaster University and vice-president, education, of McMaster’s student union, can see the possibilities for his tech-savvy generation. One multifaceted electronic text that could meet the needs of students with a wide variety of learning styles is exciting, he says – as is the prospect of a cleaner, greener way to learn.

But, despite these technological and environmental advantages, a number of concerns remain. Surprisingly, perhaps the biggest stumbling block has been a reluctance on the part of students to adapt and use e-textbooks.

One of the vaunted selling features of e-texts is their affordability – they often sell for about half the cost of a traditional textbook. However, Mr. Martin points out that electronic materials often have an expiry date. After a set amount of time (for CourseSmart books, 180 days is typical) the pages simply disappear, something known as “time-bombing” in e-book parlance. “If students pay for something,” he says, “they should be able to own it, just like you would with a regular textbook.”

And there’s the device issue. Mr. Martin says students, by and large, are not excited about adopting new gadgets and software, especially if the technology is expensive. A traditional textbook doesn’t require a cord, power source, battery or web connection. And e-texts could create an access problem for students of lesser means who can’t afford a laptop, smart phone or Sony Reader, he says.

Moreover, most students just don’t like to study off a screen – they can’t mark it up, doodle on it, dog-ear it, or read it with ease for hours on end. “I’m not a fan of staring at a computer screen for any longer than I have to,” says Joanna Moon, who just graduated from Queen’s University. When she was studying for her biology and health studies degree, she used to print articles from online journals to make them easier to read.

While new software and devices often allow users to write notes and highlight text, it’s not like being able to mark up a physical page. “Students will read a book in any format available, but when it comes time to study, they usually want a hard copy,” observes Mark Lefebvre, book operations manager at McMaster’s Titles Bookstore and vice-president of the Canadian Booksellers Association. “When students study, maybe there are things that aid their study that need to be done in a tangible, physical way.”

Peter Milroy, with more than 40 years in the publishing industry and director of UBC Press, says there’s something timeless about books. “The means by which we’ve delivered music to people over time has changed consistently, from wax discs to 78s to 45s to 33-and-a-thirds, to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs and MP3s. There’s been a constant movement,” observes Mr. Milroy. “Books haven’t changed, mostly because they make a fair bit of sense the way they stand.”

David Stover, president of Oxford University Press Canada, notes that the company’s research shows that people like the idea of electronic textbooks but don’t like the ways they’re being delivered. His own teenaged kids, who spend a lot of time online, don’t read books in electronic form. “It’s still not a very good experience,” he says, noting that e-textbooks likely represent less than one percent of OUP Canada’s textbook sales.

Things will rapidly accelerate once someone figures out how to deliver everything students want and need in an electronic device that they like, he predicts. “So far the delivery mechanisms have been quite clunky and haven’t really matched the experience of reading a textbook in print format.”

Dr. Bonk, the Indiana U professor and author, says, “Eventually one device, like the iPod and the iPhone, will pop to the top of the list, and then everyone will jump in. But we don’t have that device yet.”

Experts in the United States and Canada peg the portion of the textbook market that’s gone electronic around five percent – not huge, but in a multi-billion- dollar market not insignificant. Dr. Bonk says the tipping point may soon be at hand.

“You can’t say we’re just experimenting anymore,” he argues. “I think the five percent is going to quickly accelerate. I think the numbers are going to be quite explosive.”

Tim Johnson
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  1. Steve Carnes / December 22, 2009 at 13:37

    It is completely unfathomable to me that there is not a single comment or reference anywhere in this article on the issue of accessibility. “Most students just don’t like to study off a screen” — What about those who can’t?

    While I am confident that someday this challenge will have been met, it is most absolutely ceratinly not at this point in time. So has the governator decided that visually impaired students in California’s high schools just won’t be able to take math and science??

  2. Wayne Burnett / December 23, 2009 at 04:24

    While I agree that accessibility should have been covered, I would suggest it could be from different perspectives. Ereaders might allow for significant increases in font size, they might (eventually if not now) facilitate text-to-speech of textbook materials and closed captioning for integrated video. Ereaders might increase accessibility…in time.

    I, too, often print out articles rather than read them on my tablet. Even though I can “ink” what I read with my machine, I am not really excited about looking at the monitor as much as I already do (I usually mark my students’ papers this way). Still, I can see students getting more interested in ereaders if they can (easily) make annotations, perhaps listen to some background music and if they find the visual experience positive. In other words, everything you can do with a textbook (including keeping the textbooks) without making your eyes hurt.

  3. Debby Newman / December 23, 2009 at 09:55

    Stover makes a good point. I just completed an online course. For my learning style, I needed to print out 2″ of resources and assignments. I couldn’t do it all online.

    Authors want their information to be used by multiple audiences, and instructors want students to learn. Universal design up front (author then publisher) will enable more people with vision impairment, cognitive, hearing (think of vodcasting assignments), and learning and physical disabilities to have access. Of course, e-readers also need improved, accessible functionality.