Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two takes on e-textbooks (from the Chronicle)

In the Chronicle (behind the subscription wall--sorry) this week are two articles on e-textbooks, and I have a problem with both of them.

The first one explains that teachers in an education course have had their students create a wiki instead of buying a textbook ("Is Higher Education Ready to Switch to Digital Course Materials?"), which may be a great model in education classes. But this made me come to a full stop:
Only 20 years ago, a university's reputation was in large part measured by the quality and extent of its library. Now many students have access at home to more information than even the greatest academic library contains. Not only is more information available, but our tools of access are becoming exponentially better — and those improvements are taking place constantly. Academe has yet to acknowledge how such trends are changing the educational process.

Now, I do believe strongly in the value of student-created materials like wikis, but when it came to this paragraph, the authors lost me. Say what? We don't need libraries now because we have access to "more information than even the greatest academic library contains"? Really? Really?. Again, maybe this is true for what they teach in education classes; I don't know about that and can't say. But to apply this to any kind of MLA field is, to put it politely, a whopper.


The second article is Mark Nelson's "Is Higher Education Ready to Switch to Digital Course Materials? The Cost of Textbooks Is Driving Electronic Solutions."
Each year one of the biggest debates in higher education seems to be: Is this the year that electronic textbooks take off? Many of the barriers are falling. E-reader devices are getting better. The inventory of digital content is expanding. Business models are emerging to support the needs of students, faculty members, and publishers. People are getting more comfortable with new modes of information delivery and the pervasiveness of technology in our lives. Discussions of the future of digital course materials are now more often about "when" than "if." . . . . Among the early adopters of e-textbooks are for-profit universities like the University of Phoenix, where most textbooks are delivered digitally, and all but a small fraction of students use e-books rather than print versions.


Leaving aside the "as the University of Phoenix goes, so goes the nation" idea (it's an online university; it makes sense that its books are delivered in that way, too), Nelson isn't wrong about the basic idea. I've done a little searching for e-textbooks, however, and they have a few drawbacks:
1. They're almost as expensive as the regular versions.
2. You rent them: that is, they expire after a period of time.
3. You can't mark them up easily.

Here's my counterproposal for "business model to fit the needs of students": free.
1. If you teach texts are out of copyright, you create a reading list based on Google books or Gutenberg (if there's a good text there).
2. Everybody brings a netbook or laptop to class and works from that. Better still: maybe a tablet notebook or laptop so that they can mark up .pdf files. If you require this, however, you end up with the problem of money and access to equipment, since not all students will have these. Heck, I don't have a tablet notebook, either.

The drawbacks, however, are the same as those for the e-textbooks.
1. Even if the reading is short and you've formatted it to be as tree-friendly as possible, students will not print it out.
2. Students can't mark up the text.
3. All the internet deficit disorders that we've been talking about for years will distract attention from the class discussion.

5 comments:

Professor Zero said...

They're confusing books and textbooks.

dance said...

Something I noticed the other day--when I upload a PDF to Blackboard, it insists in opening IN Blackboard, meaning it is smaller and more difficult to use than if it opened in an individual window. And this whole read-PDF-in-Browser thing makes it more difficult to zoom, etc.

I actually included some links to PDF programs that let you mark up PDFs in my online syllabus, under a "Do I need to take notes?" heading. But these require students to download the PDF separately, and many students don't realize they can do that.

Anyhow, I'm not sure what my point is. I guess that really usefully using electronic sources requires that we all start class with some tutorials on taking advantage of the tools that are out there, and who wants to become a teacher of technology?

dance said...

Sorry, second post.

Example of what can be done without tablets:
http://www.tuaw.com/2007/04/02/skim-pdf-reader/, especially in comments. I'm sure Windows programs offer the same tools. Totally feasible for a univ to pick a program, install it on all the univ computers, and encourage students to buy it or give it to them cheap.

It would be nice if you linked to the Chronicle articles regardless of the paywall, for the archives (and because I can read them if I am on my univ network).

undine said...

Professor Zero, yes, I think that they have the textbooks model (business and STEM disciplines) in mind.

Dance, thanks for the suggestion; I just added the links to the articles. Also, thanks very much for the link to SkimPDF reader. I didn't know that there was a free program that could do this and have been reluctant to push pdf files on my students without some such program. I think you're right: to go bookless (or paperless), we would need to spend some time showing them how to use these tools, and that risks turning them off to what we're actually teaching before we even begin. It seems to me that students are keen users of technology that they discover and want to use in private life (iPods, cell phones) but lit majors and creative writers can be a little resistant to that kind of technology lure, if that's not too close to stereotyping.

undine said...

Resistant if it's for a class purpose, that is.