E-textbooks: still inferior to the codex versions

Unimpressive in actual classroom applications

Did anyone else hear this story on NPR last night about how allegedly the iPad is finally going to end the suckitude of e-textbooks?  Except the content of the story seemed to undermine the headline–it was all about how badly the Kindle sucked and how students were reluctant to buy their own iPads because they still kind of suck.  (They were happy to use the free iPads offered in trials for e-texts, though.)  The interview with Reed College Political Scientist Alex Montgomery-Amo is pretty much what I would have predicted:

Last year they tried out the Kindle and this year they’ve been given free iPads to test. Montgomery-Amo says they’re hoping to have better luck with the iPad than they had with the Kindle.

“That went … I think horribly would be a good way of putting it,” he says. “The problem is that the Kindle is less interactive than a piece of paper in that the paper, you can quickly write notes in the margin or star something or highlight something, and the Kindle was so slow at highlighting and making notes that the students stopped reading them as scholarly texts and started reading them like novels.”

The result, according to Montgomery-Amo, is that his students didn’t understand the material as well as they did when using a traditional textbook.

To make matters worse, he says the Kindle proved unable to keep up with the class discussion — it would take half a minute to load a page and by then, the discussion would have lost its momentum.

I absolutely understand the allure of e-texts.  Codex textbooks are heavy, expensive, and they use a lot of paper–there should be a better way, shouldn’t there be?  Except:  the “better way” has to actually be better than the codex edition.  So far, the professor and students using the iPad this year like its speed and its clean look, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that the iPad textbooks are superior to the codex editions, and neither do the students interviewed for this story:

The students have the option to buy their iPads at a good price at the end of the year, and while Rebecca Traber says she’s thinking about it, junior Tevon Edwards doesn’t think it’s worth the money.

“It doesn’t solve enough problems for how much it costs,” he says. “For most classes, I can use a laptop … and there are programs I could use for a laptop that would also allow me to annotate,” Edwards says.

Traber also has her doubts.

“While I like reading on it better than reading on a laptop, in terms of creating anything — like writing papers or even e-mails — it’s ridiculously hard,” she says. “I don’t like the keyboard at all.”

Now, I don’t ever assign textbooks, even in my lower-division classes.  I assign only monographs (or in survey classes, primary source readers) and articles that are available on-line through the library’s website, so students have to work to spend more than $120 on books for my undergraduate classes.  (Students who know how to use their library cards can get away for considerably less money.)  I can see how the Kindle or iPad would be a reasonable choice for my students–but I’ll leave it up to them.  From what I’ve heard so far, “flipping” back and forth on the Kindle and iPad to locate particular passages or evidence isn’t nearly as easy as the codex books with a decent index.

Inkling’s Matt MacInnis says his company is also designing software that is compatible with the printed page, but he also thinks the iPad and similar tablet devices will be hard for students to resist.

He says the era of the $180 textbook is ending and the time when you can download a chapter for $2.99 is only just beginning. That’s why, when it comes to marketing his e-textbooks, MacInnis says he’ll be aiming straight for the students.

He says, “I can absolutely guarantee you that the guy with the book version is looking over the shoulder — with envy — at the guy with the iPad version.”

Well–okay.  I suppose the iPad and other e-readers could be marketed as just another cool toy for college students.  The vendors of this stuff probably care less about the utility of what they’re selling, so long as it’s selling.  But remember, it’s the professors who will ultimately assign the final grades for these courses, not the students.  And if the proffie ain’t happy with the technology, ain’t nobody gonna be happy!

Have you experimented with e-textbooks?  Their usefulness probably varies across the disciplines, but I can’t imagine they sound all that tempting to most of us, after stories like this one (which was nevertheless billed as a story about how the iPad is finally going to change everything!!11!!)

0 thoughts on “E-textbooks: still inferior to the codex versions

  1. This isn’t the educational setting, but at the firm I worked for this summer, there were a couple of lawyers who LOVED the iPad for work. They used the iPads to access all the tons of documents related to a case from home (usually these were PDFs), so didn’t have to lug boxes of documents home with them, found them easier to read documents on than on a laptop, and had no problems annotating. (I think they were able to use a stylus to “write” on the document itself, though I might be wrong about that.)

    Which isn’t to say this would automatically translate to other contexts, but I was kind of impressed, especially given that the legal field is not Mac-friendly as a rule.


  2. I should probably say first of all that I haven’t used e-textbooks at all – but then again, none of the courses I TA’d for in the past few years ever used a textbook (document readers – published ones – yes, but not actual big textbooks). Most do monographs, and that’s my plan when I’m teaching my own courses.

    I have a three-year-old Sony eReader…which has now been superseded by my one-month-old iPad. Since I’m not teaching this year, my reading on the iPad for school purposes is as yet limited. (I’ve read some downloaded PDFs for various things, and I’ve downloaded some books for fun).

    A friend of mine is now a postdoc in Chemistry, and she LOVES having her e-textbooks on the iPad. In part, this is possibly because she’s got three courses and chemistry texts are HUGE – so this saves her back walking to and from campus. I don’t know whether she’s done annotating in them or not, but the notetaking capabilities through apps like SmartNote (for the iPad) are phenomenal for at least classroom purposes.

    I’d be curious to see how the annotating goes on e-textbooks on the iPad. Annotating PDFs through iAnnotate is ridiculously easy and wonderful – meaning that any article I download is no big deal to annotate and flip through, or even save my notations for later.

    And page-flipping on the iPad for e-books is MUCH better than on my old Sony eReader – that thing was so old that it was taking 30 seconds to flip the page, while the iPad (Nook and iBook interfaces – haven’t tried the kindle app yet, though I have it) is as fast as doing it with the hard copy. Admittedly, I haven’t tried marking up any of my ebooks yet or annotating them, so that I’ll have to get back to you on.

    I think there are a lot of benefits to the iPad and ereaders, but for me, it’s largely about portability and ability to access multiple documents. (I have plans to use my iPad for my presentation notes at two conferences this year, and for teaching notes in the future). And I don’t think the iPad will change everything…nor is it for everyone.


  3. I’ve been given e-text access from publishers for courses that I’m teaching in a given term (and a link to let students choose if paying the somewhat discounted rate for a time-limited access to a text is worth it to them. Nobody owned up to buying an ebook when I asked my huge survey last year!)

    I’m not too impressed as you still can’t flip through it and, even on my widescreen, it’s not terribly readable one you add in the top and bottom bars of navigating that wrap the content. So not sold, here!

    When I was in line at the library last week to check out some books, three student in front of me were discussing another class’s ebook offerings. Only one of the three was interested in getting the ebook. The other two had gone to the site, looked at the sample pages and declared them unreadable. So it’s still going to take some time, I’m afraid!


  4. I heard that story on the way up to Denver yesterday and was equally taken by the stupidity of “aiming straight for the students.” Didn’t these e-textbook entrepreneurs ever go to college? How many textbooks did they get to choose themselves?

    I’m more interested in life in history survey classes without a textbook. It’s one of those things that I’ve aspired to do but have never pulled the plug. What’s it like?


  5. Our friende frome the Elizabethane past didst notte knowe whatte a codex is? Surely notte!

    Janice–that’s interesting. I always think of you as so much more technologically savvy and adventurous than me. But maybe we–and our students–know a little something about how they study effectively and how best they might learn!

    Jonathan: ditching the textbook is awesome. I just decided that that’s what my lectures are for. I give them the big picture in class, and then assign more analytical secondary and primary sources. It’s cheaper for the students, it gives them a reason to go to class, and it’s easier for me because I don’t want to read a damned textbook. (For students who may be in the social studies teaching track, I invite them to come to my office and take one of the free textbooks I get sent by the publishers. I’m sure you’ve got a groaning shelf of them, too.)


  6. At the end of a long hard day of scrolling, clicking, highlighting, dragging-and-dropping, touch-screening, and the like, if I can’t crumple a thing up, tear it into strips, wrap some stale gum with it, or use it to light the kindling, I don’t even want to see it, much read from it. But in a world where faculties are making the slow descent from veritable godheads to stakeholders to pedagogic content storefront delivery system technicians, who cares what any of us think? The day looms when we all report back to school at the beginning of fall (like, say, August 23) and head for the assembly room, where the incoming acting provost for content provider interface strategies rolls out the new platform that we’re going to “launch” this semester, describes it, claps hir hands, and says [pointing], o.k., I need you to do this, you to do that, you three to team up for the [whatever], and off we’ll trot to our respective homerooms.

    My colleagues here are on the cusp of being force-“migrated” from their second to their third vendor-provided “learning management system” in three years, after being promised last spring that “you’ll always have # 2.” Big lie. The commissars up in Mockba [state capital] decided otherwise. Since I never adopted LMS platform # 1, I’ve watched these cross-tundra migrations with a mixture of sadness and relief. Hey, sedentary beats migratory anytime, right? Except for the long term cardiac consequences of same, that’s what it says here in my dog-eared Western Civ text *book* 🙂


  7. I found the more compelling comment the one from the student who said that we used the e-text on his computer and it worked better. I have one visually impaired student who will be using an e-text on her laptop along with the regular textbook. She’s going to let me play around with it. The e-text advantage on the laptop is they have a lot less to carry around (a major problem for HS students) and the annotation functions appear to work pretty well (both highlighting and sticky notes). You can also just call up your sticky notes to see if any themes are emerging in your notetaking, which is a pretty cool feature. You can click on them and it takes you to the page where the note is. I’m using Keene et. al. Visions of America for my 10th grade survey. So far the kids like it (despite the reading difficulty – it is a college text after all) and I like it too. Clear narrative, good analysis, and great visuals integrated into the text along with how to interpret them and how people at the time understood them. The one complaint so far is that there isn’t enough room to annotate well, a problem that the e-text would solve.


  8. What about the cost concerns here? I’ve got a Kindle and I think they’re spectacularly unsuited for a lot of academic work and especially classroom settings and teaching where there’s an expectation that one would be flipping through the text. So that leaves us with the iPad, which is expensive and, even when the price inevitably comes down, doesn’t seem to me like the kind of object we can demand that students buy. At the very least, with textbooks, there are creative ways to get around some of the cost issues (and, as I understand it, some of the various state programs/scholarships/what-have-you that include books in their financial packages often require that these books be purchased at the campus bookstore; not sure they’re going to be picking up the tab on iPads for another ten years or so.)


  9. Our practice’s EHR (electronic health record) is built on a Windows based tablet that does a few things extremely well, but those savings are more than lost when it comes to using the chart as a primary source when talking with patients. Imagine building a physical notebook that organizes all the relevant thoughts, objective information, past conversations that outlines your (and your partner’s) relationship with a patient. Now the computer guys have taken it, put it in a format that does not conform with how you wish to view the info, provides views of the chart pages at an agonizingly slow pace (even when the system is not crashing regularly) and seems at every turn to serve the whims of the insurance and auditing agencies. Historiann’s point is dead on “It has to be better” and sadly, the heavily touted and subsidized world of EHR is decidedly not. The introduction of computerized systems, for the most part, serves the needs of the financial and regulatory world, feeds the coffers of marginally competent software firms and degrades the knowledge and abilities of highly trained and motivated actual people. The chart, like the book, is a brilliant and effective conveyor of thought, not just knowlege,a fact totally lost on the bean counters and middle management drones who are pushing EHR as a panacea. When I am feeling particularly black helicoptery I firmly believe that the imposed capital requirements of implementing an EHR system is the means by which the government will break the private practitioners and groups and make them employees of the larger and more controlable hospital systems. The Ipad and Kindle may well be nifty gadgets for individual use but I would be very wary of their system wide institution.
    Perhaps the analogy of patient records and text books is not completely apt. A more accurate comparison would be requiring all individual lectures and course material to conform to a single electronic format. At the very least funneling all publication and formatting through a handfull of companies cannot be anything but stifiling.


  10. It’s early on in the life of e-texts. In a few years, it will be much richer and easier to use. Even the e-readers will be totally different.

    Even our laptop tools, e.g. Word and Adobe, have to improve vastly to catch up with current needs let alone future needs.


  11. koshem Bos–I agree, and I’m open to using them when they offer more than a codex book offers. But only when they’re better for my purposes than the codex.

    I’m skeptical that that’s ever going to happen in my professional lifetime, however, because I see a fundamental conflict in the development of e-books: Apple or Kindle or whoever wants to sell them to as many people as possible and make them desirable because they’re “cool” and “hip.” But the needs and requirements of the academic marketplace may be quite different, or even at odds, with sales to a larger buying public.

    I’m sure that a lot of professors who teach music, or work with oral history, or who otherwise use audiofiles have found that MP3s have made audio sources much more available for their classroom use. But the iPod wasn’t developed so that music professors could access worldwide musical history files in a matter of seconds. I see my task as sorting out and using the technologies I find most useful for teaching and learning my subject–whether that’s photocopies, online journal articles, codex or E-books, a wipeboard and a dry erase marker, DVDs, or whatever.


  12. I’ve looked at several electronic editions for Western Civ. None of them have impressed me to the point where I would assign them. Historiann and several other commenters are right, the e-version would have to be better than the paper version before I would assign it.

    Also, the e-versions are not that much cheaper than used paperback versions of the same textbook. I also think that they are kind of a rip-off because they expire after a fixed period of time. Personally, I do not see that as a good value. Then again, most of my students sell their textbooks as soon as they can, usually to but beer. So maybe they never plan on keeping the book anyway.

    That said, I have had several students use the e-version of my current documents collection, Discovering the Western Past. They seemed to like using it on their laptop for the sake of portability. Their results for the class were no different than that of their peers. So from a teaching standpoint, e-books are not bad. The technology would seem to be ‘good enough’ for individual adopters, depending on personal preference. This leads me to believe that the e-book will have a gradual adoption, not now, but maybe in ten or twenty years they will be ubiquitous.


  13. Pingback: Teaching history survey classes without a textbook. « More or Less Bunk

  14. Historiann, do you have a post on the lecture-as-textbook? I love the idea, but every time I try it I find that I just can’t cover enough during lecture to provide the scaffolding they need, or that I’m giving REALLY BORING lectures.


  15. My college’s writing program ebook is the bane of my existence. It is expensive, web-based, and cobbled together by monkeys who were speaking different languages. So…so…awful.



  16. Dance & Jonathan: The key to lecturing instead of assigning a textbook isn’t obsessing about the details. It’s about the big picture–outlining a theme and some arguments–and then selected primary and secondary sources are there to fill in some of the details and facts.

    Students who want more details can come to me for free textbooks off of the shelves of unsolicited books I get. I encourage those who are considering becoming teachers to get a textbook. But, textbooks are essentially reference material. And who wants to sit down and read an encyclopedia or a dictionary straight through for “content?”

    Bing–I thought it was supposed to be a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters! Stupid monkeys!


  17. We just got a Kindle and my mother-in-law started asking about whether textbooks were available on it. I find most parents/students would rather have e-books because the weight they are forced to haul around. However, from an engineering perspective, I just can’t imagine getting the same out of the Kindle vs my physical textbooks. I don’t even usually write in my books. But the ones I use have a plethora of post-it notes sticking out of it, I can quickly flip back and forth from the appendix to whatever page I’m on. Flip through really fast to find that chart that I know I’ll recognize but can’t remember the page. I think if you are forced to read something that you won’t be re-reading or won’t be analyzing (as is often the case with high school textbooks, and many a poorly taught college class) then I see the draw of an e-book. I’m also disgusted by how e-books now cost THE SAME AS the textbook version, often expire, require updates, have limited use (you’d have to lend your Kindle to somebody, as opposed to letting them borrow your book). If they were significantly cheaper I could see the advantage, but they aren’t.

    Historiann you have it right, one of my favorite classes is taught without the book (there is a book, but it’s optional). All info is given in the lecture. I suspect a very enthusiastic professor could have gone even further with handouts, etc. But with lectures and custom provided homework we did just fine.


  18. One of my engineering textbooks this fall had an electronic version option. My immediate reaction was “Wow, cool!” (What do you expect from a gadget-loving nerd?) I was excited about putting it on my laptop and not needing another unused lump of paper on the rather overburdened bookshelf.

    Instead, I left the bookstore with the traditional textbook for two main reasons:
    (1) the price difference was slightly less than a 10% savings over a new book, and something more like 5% for a used version; but more importantly,
    (2) I would be unable to resell an electronic version, and this is a text I have no intention of keeping.
    (Plus I don’t entirely trust the bookstore to be able to act as a helpful intermediary should something go wrong with the purchase, license, or whatever…)

    I did, however, recently acquire an e-reader (a Sony, not a Kindle), and am using it for the PDFs supplied as readings for an environmental philosophy seminar I’m taking. Instead of printing out the material for each week, we just download it and do whatever we want; about half the class has opted for some sort of electronic reading instead of hard copy. I love it, but I can also see how it’s not for everyone 🙂


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