Everything in academia seems to be getting a tech makeover, including the world of textbooks. As any college student will tell you, the cost of college texts can be steep, and budget savvy students are skilled at scoring used textbooks via the internet and book swaps. That is why the introduction of e-textbooks has been looked upon as a real boon to perpetually cash-strapped collegians, and several colleges and universities have launched pilot projects to test-drive the e-text option.
The results of some of these tests are in, and the results are mixed. Take the feedback from a recent pilot program involving five universities working in conjunction with Internet2, a high-speed networking group, Courseload, the e-text brokers, and publishing powerhouse, McGraw-Hill. The five participating schools were Cornell University, the Universities of Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin at Madison, and Indiana University at Bloomington, where both students and faculty were surveyed about their experiences - pro and con - with digital texts.
Overall, students reported they were happy with the savings provided by the e-text option, however many of.the respondents felt that the overall user experience was ‘clumsy,’ and indicated a preference for traditional print textbooks. The two biggest negatives: many students found the e-book platforms hard to navigate, and many expressed dissatisfaction with their experience using e-readers. But one staunch advocate for e-texts thinks the problem may be that professors are not using these new materials up to their fullest potential.
Bradley Wheeler, the VP of Information Technology at Indiana University, pioneered the model for this latest pilot in 2009. He points out that there has always been both a steep learning curve and discomfort factor when new ideas or technologies are introduced.
“With technology, many things change with repeated use,” he observes. “People have lots of early first impressions as they experience new things, and then over time you start to see things become more mainstream, as the technology improves and skills and even attitudes toward use improve.”
In addition to containing the information in traditional textbooks, e-texts have the added advantage of collaborative features that allow note sharing and creating links within the actual text. However, in order for these additional digital features to be fully utilized, faculty members need to have adequate training. The results of this pilot seems to reinforce Wheeler’s recommendation that universities take a more pro-active position, giving professors more comprehensive training in the ‘value added’ features of e-texts. Wheeler reports that in the 2009 model, students of professors who fully used the annotation features in their e-textbooks had an overwhelmingly positive experience. He goes on to note that “...these capabilities make the electronic text much more than just an alternative to a physical book.”
Of course, it would be premature to announce the closing of college bookstores. There are plenty of students and professors who are still hanging on to traditional textbooks. But in today’s economic climate, when so many college students are struggling with tuition and other costs, the savings that e-texts could represent over the course of a four-year degree program could be significant. All five universities that signed on for this recent pilot are continuing the program for the next academic year, and twenty-four additional universities have signed on, including Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, and Michigan State University. That sends a pretty strong signal that e-textbooks are here to stay.