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!!)