Thursday, October 21, 2010

E-textbooks (again): students prefer dead tree versions

At the New York Times, Lisa Forderaro expresses surprise that the students at Hamilton College prefer print textbooks to the digital kind (which, she notes correctly, you "rent" instead of buying). Why do the students prefer paper to screens?

  • “The screen won’t go blank,” said Faton Begolli, a sophomore from Boston. “There can’t be a virus. It wouldn’t be the same without books. They’ve defined ‘academia’ for a thousand years.”
  • “Last semester, I rented for psychology, and it was cheaper. But for something like organic chemistry, I need to keep the book. E-textbooks are good, but it’s tempting to go on Facebook, and it can strain your eyes.”
These seem like sensible answers to me. If even twenty-somethings are feeling eyestrain, that's good to know.

Also, as Forderaro says, "Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way." This doesn't seem to dissuade the digital true believer, though:

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”
This is true but not true, and, paired with the idea about writing in margins, flipping through the books, etc., suggests that students are somehow not thinking clearly but clinging blindly to an old tool.

Hold on a minute. Aren't students the people most likely to try out a new format and discard the old one if they decide it's more useful, and haven't they done this repeatedly with various technologies and practices, right down to the sophisticated methods of plagiarism that we all complain about? Except for the comment about books defining academia, which shows a quite admirable sentiment, all of the objections have nothing to do with "don't want to change what I'm used to" and everything to do with "the e-textbooks just don't work as well for me."

I don't think they're being resistant. I think they're making a rational choice about what works best for them.

The line of reasoning that considers resistance to using a particular technology as a particular kind of obstinacy reminds of other experiments (not to mention the hilarious Professor Pushbutton machine that Historiann found). Does Duke still give out iPods to its freshman class? Is Reed College continuing with its KindleDX program?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't experiment with these technologies; we should, and we should keep trying. But we should also be willing to see that if they don't work well, it's not a statement about resistance to technology but about using the appropriate tool for the job.


Bardiac said...

Good point!

My students adapt quickly to any technology that works well for them. They text with ease, change texting platforms with ease, and still seem to find writing in the margins useful.

undine said...

Bardiac, I'm glad to hear it. Mine are the same way.