July 17, 2009

E-texts not necessarily easier

Earlier this summer California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he wants to bring digital math and science textbooks to California’s secondary schools as early as this fall. (Heavy old books, the governor says, are useful as weights for arm curls.) A recent Wall Street Journal article explores the pros and cons of the portable e-book.

Alloway Library e-books differ from the products mentioned here. The library makes texts available online through our catalouge; Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are portable devices that store downloaded texts.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article here

Book Smarts? E-Texts Receive Mixed Reviews From Students.

by Ryan Knutson and Geoffrey A. Fowler;

The Wall Street Journal; July 16, 2009)

Last August, administrators at Northwest Missouri State University handed 19-year-old Darren Finney a Sony electronic-book Reader. The assignment for him and 200 other students: Use e-textbooks for studying, instead of heavy hardback texts.

At first, Mr. Finney worried about dropping the glass and metal device as he read. But eventually, the sophomore came to like the Reader. Its keyword search function, he says, was “easier than flipping through the pages of a regular book.” Dozens of other participants, however, dropped out of the program, complaining that the e-texts were awkward and inconvenient.

Proponents tout e-books’ potential to do things that old-fashioned textbooks can’t. Since e-books aren’t printed and don’t need to be sold through physical distributors, they should theoretically be less expensive than regular books and can save students and schools money. What’s more, e-textbooks are environmentally friendly, can lighten backpacks and keep learning materials current.

But the transition has sparked controversy among some educators. They say that digital reading comes with drawbacks, including an expensive starting price for e-book readers and surprisingly high prices for digital textbooks. Also, publishers make e-texts difficult to share and print, and it is unclear how well students will adapt to reading textbooks on a screen, some say. The earliest versions of these devices lack highlighting, note-taking and sharing capabilities, and one leading provider’s e-books expire after several months, meaning they can’t be kept for future reference.

Moreover, younger students might find the devices antiquated. Last year, educational research group Project Tomorrow asked students what elements they found most important in digital textbooks. Many said they wanted interactive features like videos and quizzes. No dedicated e-readers have these attributes.

There are questions about how comfortable students will be studying on screens. In a recent study of 504 college students by the Student Public Interest Research Group, a consortium of student activists based in Chicago,, 75% of college students said they would prefer print to digital texts.

Some California school districts say they have had positive results with e-texts so far. “The greatest immediate observable result is how quickly the kids get engaged,” says Las Virgenes schools superintendent Donald Zimring. He adds, however, that there is no evidence e-texts improved reading or test scores.

At colleges, trials of e-textbooks and readers have been mixed. When Northwest Missouri State ran its trial with the Sony Reader last fall, dozens of the 200 participants bailed out after about two weeks. “The students more often than not either suffered through it or went and got physical books,” says Paul Klute, the assistant to the university’s president, who oversees the e-book program. Students didn’t like that they couldn’t flip through random pages, take notes in the margins or highlight text, he says.

Penn State ran a pilot program last fall with 100 of the Sony Reader devices in honors English classes, and found similar results as Northwest Missouri State. The devices are good if you’re using them “on a beach or on an airplane,” said Mike Furlough, assistant dean for scholarly communications at Penn State University Libraries. “But not fully functional for a learning environment.”

Northwest Missouri State has since decided to pursue e-books that can be read on small laptops known as netbooks, rather than just a single-purpose e-reader. “A tablet netbook that is sturdy and is as fully functional as a PC has the ability to do word processing and run other programs,” Mr. Klute says.

Some Northwest Missouri State students say they remain fans of digital reading. Eric Pabst, 21, used his laptop to read e-textbooks in his finance class last year. “It’s cool because we don’t have to lug around a huge book anymore,” he says.

( RYAN KNUTSON AND GEOFFREY A. FOWLER; The Wall Street Journal; July 16, 2009)

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