Electronic textbooks: mole dishes insider intel


Mr. Mole

I had lunch on Monday with a mole deep inside the world of for-profit academic publishing.  We discussed his industry’s current fascination with e-textbooks:  everyone is developing them and spending gobs of money on them, but no one has figured out how to profit from them.  (Like everything else on the internets, except for Pr()n and gambling!)  Apparently, Texas–one of two states (California is the other) that pretty much dictate what K-12 textbook companies publish–demands now that all textbooks considered for statewide adoption have e-text versions as the price of admission.  That is, having the e-text is a precondition for being considered at all, but they still have to print up the hard copies of the books, too.

The advantages to e-texts without hard copies are obvious to publishers:  no paper, printing, or warehouse storage costs, and absolutely no competition with the used textbook market.  (Used textbooks are Kryptonite to the textbook publishing industry:  they have to make all their money in one year on a new edition–after that, there are so many used copies in circulation that they can no longer compete.)  Mr. Mole said that given the minimal focus most college instructors put on textbooks, e-texts make a lot of sense, since in most disciplines they serve for the most part as expensive reference tools that aren’t read cover-to-cover but rather are consulted episodically on an as-needed basis.  In those cases, e-text versions should be welcome substitutions for the 15-pound doorstopper.

But, would e-texts work in history or literature classes?  I wondered if book-intensive (rather than article-intensive) disciplines in which reading is–or should be, anyway–not just a central methodology but also a pleasureable experience would be so eager to jump on the e-bandwagon?  Mr. Mole and I both agreed that on-line was fine for short pieces (as on blogs) and perhaps magazine-length articles, but not for books that were meant to be read cover-to-cover.  And, I would add, not even on a Kindle or other such gadget.  (After all:  who wants to spend even more time in front of a darn computer screen?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?)  Interestingly, Mr. Mole was one step ahead of me, and said that he had conducted a focus group with 10 undergraduates at his alma mater recently about e-texts.  Here’s what he found out: 

  • The students said that history classes were widely perceived as the “most difficult” classes in the university.  Why?  Because they actually are required to do the assigned reading, and (in the words of my mole), “time + effort spent on coursework = the level of difficulty students assign to their courses.”
  • When asked if e-textbooks would be attractive or useful to them, they responded enthusiastically–for all disciplines but history.  Why?  “Because they actually have to do the reading for their history courses.”
  • My mole said that he was surprised at the strong interest students of generation Web 2.0 still have for print versions of their history books, but they were very clear in their preference for old-school technology for books which they’re actually required to read and know well.

What do you think?  Have you assigned an e-text recently?  Would you consider doing so?  I don’t assign U.S. history survey textbooks even in my survey classes, in part because I found myself using them so little and wanting to read them myself even less.  But, I would probably recommend a well-designed and reasonably priced e-text that students could consult for more background information or in case they missed some lectures.  Here’s something else to consider:  e-texts would presumably cut out the university bookstore as a broker for information–and it would be easier to assign recommended books, too, since students could just purchase access directly from the publisher instead of counting on the bookstore to track down a copy for them.  E-texts might seriously cut into university bookstores’ business, but then I’m pretty sure there’s a higher profit margin on logo sweatshirts and insulated coffee mugs, so they might welcome the freed-up space.

0 thoughts on “Electronic textbooks: mole dishes insider intel

  1. I tend to assign a lot of e-texts, but in the form of e-reserves – that is, short readings or articles they can access through blackboard, or the library reserves system. My history classes tend to focus almost exclusively on primary materials for the readings, and I tend to make smaller readings assignments, not because I fear the students “won’t do them,” but because I want to do a close reading and focused discussion. I don’t really like most primary source collections out, however, because the excerpts are too small/ truncated and it drives me crazy. But with short e-reserve readings they can print them out and bring them to class, which is an expectation that I have. I’ve done course packs but they can be quite expensive, and I always try to keep the price of the texts I assign in mind. . . I wonder how many of my western civ students are reading the text book at all. If they really only used them as occasional references then I would consider assignment an e-text version of that. But they also have a primary source text book, and I would always have them buy a hardcopy of that.

    It’s kind of scary that students do not perceive their reading assignments in literature classes to be “required” the same way they do in history. I’m not sure you have a discussion of Pride and Prejudice without having read it.


  2. In the UK, there is an e-book publisher that makes available all sorts of monographs online. You need to be a member of subscribing university and you use your athens password to access them. I hate reading that way, especially as it won’t allow you to print out more than 5% of pages and no more that x% of each chapter- so you really do have to read it online. And, I have NO desire to do that. Plus I suspect the universities are moving over to that system as its cheaper, so I protest on principle as it’s a horrible way to read.

    But, occasionally, when you are working from home and need a quick reference or something, it is a handy resource. Mind you I am also guilty of reading books on Google books and referencing them if I can’t get them elsewhere (despite the fact you can’t read the whole thing.)

    As for students, well it makes books available that aren’t otherwise, and certainly for journals and primary sources we are now pretty much expected [‘strongly encouraged’] to only use online-accessible versions in our course reading, but I really hope that doesn’t happen for books. I think ‘textual authority’ is imparted by books in a way that is missing in an e-text, and it is infinitely more pleasurable to read history that way- and shouldn’t history be fun?


  3. Re: e-texts – totally not reasonable for lit courses, in my opinion, though the “custom textbook” option for intro courses (wherein I go online, select the readings, and then students can buy the book for approx. 30 bucks as opposed to spending 75 and up for an anthology, is a really good intermediate option, as it serves the same purpose of a) getting rid of the used market; b) limiting the costs related to storage/paper/publishing for the publisher, and also students like the option because it keeps their book costs down and they’re really reading everything that they’re paying for when they buy the book).

    I can see a future, if the technology develops to make this reasonable, wherein books for courses could be available through something like Kindle, but not unless it becomes feasible to really annotate the text in that interface. (This is actually why I’ve not bought a Kindle – I need to write in my books if I’m using them for teaching and/or scholarship, and I just don’t read enough “disposable” books to make the purchase of a Kindle worth it.)

    Perpetua writes: “It’s kind of scary that students do not perceive their reading assignments in literature classes to be “required” the same way they do in history. I’m not sure you have a discussion of Pride and Prejudice without having read it.”

    Well, Perpetua, let me tell you. Students think this for a variety of reasons, but I’ll list what I think are the two primary ones: 1) It’s fairly common in high schools for students not to have copies of the books that they’re reading, so all reading takes place in the classroom. This communicates to students that reading outside of class is not something required for a lit. course. 2) Students often have the perception that all that matters in a discussion of literature is one’s “feelings” or “reactions” or connecting the basic plot of a text to their own lives – and that analysis of what actually appears in the text is not the point. They are supported in this perception by their experiences in many English courses, as well as by “book club” culture (though they experience a rude awakening when they enroll in my courses).

    I’d say this: no, you can’t have a discussion of a novel (or a poem, or a play, or whatever) without having done the reading – not a discussion that has meaningful intellectual content. But because literature is often seen as something that is accessible to all, just for pleasure, has no inherent *worth* as an object of academic study, one of the primary roles of lit professors is to disabuse students of those notions. In contrast, I think students see history as having intrinsic value (“those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”) and practical value, as something that is about accruing facts and information (however limited such an understanding of history is).


  4. Dr. Crazy, that’s really disturbing. That’s not how literature classes were like when I was in college (or better I should say it’s not how students approached lit classes, because there’s clearly a problem with student expectation and NOT yours). I see what you mean about them not feeling like literature is a “real” object of academic study. That must be really frustrating. The Oprah-ification of literature? But my freshmen sometimes react to primary sources the same way – ie, with their “feelings” and “reactions” – they make it about themselves and seem puzzled when I gently (or not so gently) explain that’s not what we do in history. Why do they think college is a big long op-ed piece?

    (my apologies for distracting the thread, Historiann)


  5. Hey Historiann! Great post and interesting information from your mole. It would be interesting to see what other info comes out when they do a broader study with a larger (and statistically significant ) sample size from a variety of institutions. These findings certainly jibe with what I am seeing in my own classes at Woebegone State.

    I would try e-texts for my western civ classes, but the textbooks that they are derived from are awful. I won’t assign my student a book that I can’t stand to read. Many history survey textbooks have become bloated, glossy behemoths written in lifeless prose.

    I agree with Perpetua’s approach. Assign lots of primary sources, preferably ones on-line or from a good documents reader. Do at least one close reading a week. Make the students bring the document to class and have them explain what it means.

    In the early modern version of the western civ class (1500-1815) I am moving more towards an ‘un coverage’ approach, where the students read three monographs and a whole bunch of primary sources. I use the lectures to provide the continuity between subjects.

    Here is a question though: if textbooks are supposed to be reference works that are consulted for specific facts or bits of technical arcana, then what is to keep historians from developing a “professional grade” history-wiki instead of assigning any textbook, be it electronic or paper format?

    A history-wiki could be written by students and edited by Instructors. The material could be shared for free or sold cheaply under the creative commons license. It would always be less expensive than anything a for profit publisher could produce. If the profession decided to, the AHA could do an end run around all the publishers and create a better reference work for survey classes.


  6. Dr. Crazy: Students who don’t know history are literally doomed to repeat it here at Brezhnev State. We have a one size fits all hist’ry course that you can only exscape (sic) by becoming a history major. It’s required to graduate, and–calculated as a percentage of the 120 credits needed–it gives my discipline a 2.5% attributed contribution rate on the annualized instructional-effective tuition dollar (talking like a provost now). We don’t even trouble to measure the flunk rate, because its all revenue that floats to the bottom line as they try again and again, and sometimes again.

    On the “medium is the massage” front, California was out front on the chiropractic consequences of using actual books when they get mixed up with adolescent bookbag culture. One state legislator was said to have opined that if they could make titanium tennis rackets, why couldn’t they make titanium textbooks to ward off future public expenditures on spinal curvature correction? Some rich districts ordered two copies per student, one for class use and the other for students to keep at home. This all seems so-1999 now that proponents of the e-read revolution are talking about screens that you can actually roll up into a tube and stuff into your back pocket.


  7. I use a fair number of e-texts for my senior seminars (but they’re all works that can be printed via our dataabases) if I can’t do a custom reader for the same at reasonable cost. I haven’t adopted the e-texts for any big classes such as western civ or the ancient survey because the cost savings seem minimal for all the hassles (having to be at the computer when you’re using the book, having the login handy when you are on campus using the computer centre machines, having to have a good enough computer to keep that window open as well as the document file in which you’re writing). I’m unsurprised at Mr. Mole’s findings — the students I teach love electronic texts but seem to be daunted at electronic textbooks.


  8. I wouldn’t mind using an e-book, and some disciplines here already have them. The student like them; but the librarians and computer lab staff hate them. Why? Because the students print out the books (or chapters of the books)! I find that enormously funny; and I’d probably do the same thing. The librarians and computer lab staff are not amused because printing is free for the students and the library and labs absorb the cost of paper. They now are considering charging for printing.


  9. My experience of e-texts is similar to perpetua’s, but it was received negatively. The last time I taught the upper division course in my specialty field, I elected to move from a book-based approach to an article-based one. My thinking was that 1) students might actually do more of the reading, and I would rather have them read less if they did it all (and well); and 2) we could actually cover more topics. I can get more bang for the buck, so to speak, by assigning three 30 page articles than I can the first few chapters of a book they’ve purchased for class. I also thought that this might be cheaper: books can get expensive.

    Since I worried about the cost of a course reader, I thought that I should make this available as e-texts, to save money. So, I scanned several relevant book chapters I wanted to use, and picked out several articles available on JSTOR. I made the scanned chapters available on our course site, and provided links to the JSTOR pieces.

    And they *hated* it. I mean, HATED. They couldn’t figure out how to access JSTOR. (Apparently they can’t read our library’s instructions for linking off campus.) They resented having to print things out. They seemed not to care that it was cheaper (of course, maybe they would have resented it if they had had to pay the price for a reader.)

    What’s interesting is how they registered their complaints. I’ve had students tell me orally that the books for a course are too expensive–but these comments never make it into student evaluations. Their peevishness at having to access course materials electronically–mentioned in probably a third of my student evals. So if I want to avoid any “formal” problems, the answer is to require them to do the more expensive things, and keep any complaints off the record. I’m not sure if the students realize this.


  10. John S., my students ALSO hate printing things out! To print the (short) primary sources and (very few) journal articles they are required to read costs them pennies compared to what an actual course reader would cost… yet about half my class just WILL NOT do it. It’s so weird.

    But I guess in part it’s understandable because if you print things out as the classes happen, the expense is spread out over the semester so that you have to spend SOMETHING in prep for almost every class. Whereas if you spend more just once at the beginning of the semester, it feels less intrusive on your pocketbook because it’s just a one time thing.

    Well, that’s my theory anyway. But it means I don’t really care for e-readings because the students just don’t read them or bring them to class even if they’re required to.


  11. For those of you who ask students to print things out (I do this, too, in upper-level classes), do you have language in your syllabus that explains a) why and b) how much money to expect to set aside for printing/copying, and c) how much money this ultimately will save (roughly) on book costs? Once I added this language, students stopped complaining about this.


  12. Hi, everyone–your comments are interesting. I think there are two issues being discussed here: 1) the use of electronic textbooks, and 2) the use of any electronic readings whatsoever. There is some considerable overlap here, but each kind of text or assignment has different issues, too.

    human nails it in hir analysis of why students may hate the cheaper and (potentially) more convenient option of using free online documents and JSTOR or other articles available through your library databases. They have to work harder to find the reading, and then pay to print it up each week, as opposed to paying $100 or $125 for books in one fell swoop for your course. Therefore, every week it’s some fresh new outrage or irritation for them. (This should make textbook companies happy, of course!)

    This is I think different from the use of an e-textbook. Clio B’s report is interesting, because it appears that e-texts don’t save paper and printing costs, they just offload them onto institutions or individuals. (This seems to recall the myth of the paperless office from the 1980s, when we were told that because of email and word processing ZOMG we could throw away our pendaflex hanging files and file cabinets! Yay! Someday…?)

    Another concern I have about e-texts is that they presume that students will have ready access to computers. I’m less troubled about this with respect to college students than I am w/r/t K-12 students. Again, a school district may save money, but I think it’s burdensome (and totally unrealistic) to expecte individual families to purchase a home computer and internet access. Unless and until families can get low-cost computers for their children, and unless and until cities start offering free wifi everywhere, e-texts would accelerate already unequal access to education we already offer children in the U.S.

    Most of my students at Baa Ram U. have access to computers at home or at least via their phones, in addition to the computer labs around campus. But there are other institutions that serve a different slice of the college population–such as Clio Bluestocking’s college, which has a lot of older/part-time/commuter students who have busy, complicated, and not at all easy lives outside of school. No wonder her students are printing up all of their e-textbooks–they’re trying to do their homework, but they may or may not have access to a networked computer when they leave campus…


  13. I agree with Dr Crazy. When we moved over to e-resources in a big way, we explained to our students it was to ensure access to books that were in short supply in the library and to save them having to buy books. We do have to explain how to log into JStor repeatedly to first year students (despite it being in the coursebook) but no complaints.


  14. Speaking of dead-tree textbooks (not that we were much), has anyone seen the new rollout from Wadsworth-Cengage, generically entitled “Four-Letter Textbooks?” The one for the U.S. survey is called HIST, which is explained in front matter from “The Team” (the editorial staff is foregrounded far more than the author, who is only listed on the spine) because “HIST is how your registrar and you refer to the survey course.” I guess that’s relevant. Of the book itself, if you dropped it on your foot it wouldn’t break any bones but it might just slice right through to the ground, so thinned-out is it.

    Contrary to the normal logic of “brief edition” texts, this one doesn’t skimp on the visual materials. Indeed, they use the same ones from the weightier “products” the company peddles. But it’s front loaded with new-agey apparati, from a brief disquisition on “teaching and learning styles” to a squib on “Engagement,” which from the illustration seems to be about texting questions to your classmates. Some standard textbook elements are re-branded for the Age of the Rampant Accreditors. Thus, study questions become “Learning Outcomes.” Hot button issues are framed not around injunctions to discuss them, but around course evaluation empowerment devices.

    One of the latter asks “What do YOU think?” and then offers the proposition that “Calling North American (sic) the ‘New World’ is a misnomer.”

    [Strongly disagree… 1 2 3 4 5 6 7… Strongly agree]
    I guess how strongly you agree or disagree with something implicates the degree of its truth value.

    Handy “tear-out chapter review cards” allow you to keep on top of the LOs [learning outcomes]. Not a word about the author anywhere in the book from what I can see.

    [Strongly adopt… 1 2 3 4 5 6 85 Don’t adopt]

    Anyway, Go Rockies!


  15. I’m with Dr. Crazy and Perpetua, in lots of ways. I use books and e-texts both. E-texts to save money and when I need excerpts from primary sources they can print out and bring into class. I like Dr. Crazy’s idea of mentioning costs and will likely do that. I’m also finding that I need to give students the Penguin option sometimes, too, because some of my students have mentioned that it’s easier for them to deal with longer readings in book form, even if it’s only 50-60 pp. of something much longer (e.g., Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War). OTOH, sometimes I have a hard time convincing them that a particular edition needs to be bought, because I want them all to read the introduction and notes…


  16. E-reserves but not e-texts. In literature I find students are actually willing to read online or print out if it is free, but the Penguin editions of books are more portable than laptops and don’t cost more than printing would. So I’ll put up links to whatever is available, but if the reading is long the students buy the book.

    If it’s a question of a textbook, even an anthology, they want the physical book. Many of these are available in looseleaf, cheaper because they are unbound, and non resalable for that reason. And you can just carry around a chapter if you want your backpack to be light. I won’t assign a textbook or an anthology if I do not intend to actually use most of it.


  17. 1) I only teach articles and book excerpts — all acquired legally for a coursepack or through paid online article databases (JSTOR). Textbook be gone!

    2) For ugrads, I offer them an extra credit point (they love that, though it is worth almost nothing) if they bring printouts or show me downloaded PDFs of all the articles the first weeks of class. This, I think, ups the likelihood that they don’t skip readings when they aren’t easily accessible that week. I agree — any impediment to doing the work decreases the likelihood they do it.

    3) This greatly reduces costs for students — a ugrad coursepack costs under $50, and grad students pay under $20 to copy the excerpts they can’t get online. Now, with scanning, I’m hopeful I can reduce that even more.

    4) FYI: I’m a HUGE fan of the Kindle. No, it isn’t perfect, but I much prefer reading it to paper most days. I can search for key terms, carry my books anywhere, and you CAN annotate it (not the best keyboard in the world, but then you have a text file of annotations, as opposed to a book with chicken scratches in it). Can’t wait till more academic presses make their books accessible on it.


  18. Hey, Historiann. It’s been a while…since you mention it, I have a report on the Kindle. I got a free gift certificate of $100 to Amazon so I was able to cut back the hefty tag. (I head it’s going for $259 now.) So, my first response is that it’s way overpriced, especially since many books are $7-12. Academic books are very expensive. I don’t like the idea of paying $10 for an electronic text and think that Amazon should drop the price of the Kindle itself or drop the price of books after one forks out the initial expenditure.

    As to how it works…great for those us going blind. By adjusting the font size I could read comfortably again! I thought pleasure reading was a thing of the past as a result of my job (kind of like becoming a prostitute) but then found out the problem was my eyesight, not the job. I got a new optometrist.

    The other good part is that books in the public domain are free or 99 cents, so that I have downloaded a lot of 18th and 19th cent novels and can travel with them. (Poetry doesn’t transfer very well.) The other night I wanted to read a slave narrative that I don’t have in print, and I pulled it up on the Kindle for free.

    Would I do it again? Definitely not without the gift certificate. But a few more good impulse reads might make it worth while. For those considering it, I recommend trying one out to see if you like it before spending the money.


  19. Hey Rad Readr — Wait till you go to a conference with a dozen+ pre-circ papers. Great to do the reading on the plane without lugging around reams of paper or a battery-bound laptop, not to mention doing searches for the phrase in the paper you are interested in. (And, like you, the 2 -pages-to-a-page printouts don’t work with my old eyes…)

    Then again, one of the reasons I love it is cause I’m traveling tons, not in a country with affordable books, so perhaps I love it more than I would in the U.S. But I doubt it. Immediate gratification is often my BFF.


  20. I asked my class last year what their reactions to an e-text would be. I was surprised that the answer was no way. They don’t like that it’s only a “rental”, they don’t like that there’s no secondary market, and they want something portable that doesn’t require computer access to read.

    I’ve been thinking about replacing my anthology with articles available in the online course space, because of how I use it (each is required to read and work with some of it, but not all of it). It would also be nice to have a variety of articles that I can switch around. After comments here, though, I need to more closely consider this!


  21. Crazy – what a great idea to put the cost savings directly in the syllabus! I will definitely pass that on. The professor told the students the reasoning for doing it this way in the first class, but it seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I really like that, because if you tell them up front about how much it will cost, they can just put that much on their print card, if they’re going to be printing in the labs, and not have to worry going forward.


  22. Digger, John S., et al: Dr. Crazy’s and Shaz’s ideas of explaining the cost savings on the syllabus and urging them to print up all course materials at once are really good ones. I think it’s the drip-drip-drip of each week having to print something up and make sure you have cash for the printing is what irritates the students. But if they print it all up at the beginning of the term, before they’re under the crush of assignment deadlines, they get it over with almost as quickly and even more inexpensively than standing in line to buy books.

    And, it looks like we’ve pretty much busted the myth of the paperless syllabus/course! Books are so much more convenient than a huge stack of paper…


  23. You could give them an assignment of printing out all the readings and putting them in a folder or binder by the second week. That would take care of it.


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