E-textbooks not ready for college students yet?

From Teleread   By David Rothman

image 6 Lessons One Campus Learned about E-Textbooks is the headline over Jeffrey R. Young’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But perhaps it should read instead, “E-textbooks not ready for college students yet, at least in many cases.”

Northwestern Missouri State University used the Sony Reader in a pilot study and, according to Young, found that students demanded printed books instead because of navigation problems with E.

Mind you, this wasn’t with the new PRS-700, which lets you use a stylus to move around. So maybe the results would have been different.

Kindle DX: Will lack of a stylus hurt it on campus?

image But remember, the new Kindle DX lacks a stylus, so I’ll be curious if similar navigation issue arise. We’ll be finding out soon enough since the DX is officially shipping June 10.

Another issue could be the lack of color, a capability which might be handy for charts, not to mention other illustrations. At least the Northwestern Missouri students shown above are using laptops, with color screens.

Meanwhile here’s a list of the six lessons:

  • “Judge e-books by their covers.” Hardware and software count, in terms of interfaces. The university’s results were less than stellar even when it switched to VitalSource software, which runs on laptops. Remember, laptops let you move the cursor and do plenty more than with a Kindle-style device can.
  • “Learning curves ahead.” One student told Young: “They should have a week in class where they explain how to use it.”
  • “Professors are eager students.” Rather than the hoped-for five or six profs, more than 50 volunteers for one experiment.
  • “Long live batteries.” Some students needed to tether their machines to outlets in lecture halls because their batteries ran out. Of course, E Ink machines last longer. And I’d note that netbooks and other hardware using Mary Lou Jepsen’s new screen technology also will get more life out of their machines—she hopes that her PixelQi displays will show up in netbooks later this year.
  • “Subjects are not equally e-friendly.” Beware if you’re working with numbers and equations, especially if the content is displayed in small fonts. Of course,  as I see it, maybe the right software could simplify things. One lesson from Northwest Missouri was that color significantly improved the effectiveness of illustrations. Will the Kindle DX’s monochrome be a major liability in some situations? Depends. English Lit is different from, say, biology.
  • “Environmental impact matters.” Students did feel that E was better for the environment, and according to Young, “administrators said they were surprised at the degree to which such consciousness affected students’s opinions.”
  • So how does Northwest Missouri State University’s president—a Kindle owner—now feel about e-textbooks? Well, Dean L. Hubbard stil thinks they’re inevitable. But it’s clear he thinks the tech isn’t quite there yet. Meanwhile Northwestern Missouri has appointed a successor to Hubbard, who’s retiring after 25 years in office; so it’s far from clear how things will turn out there.

One lesson I’m picking up: It’s high time that publishers gave the IDPF more money and other resources to refine e-book standards to improve usability, such as through improved navigation. We’re talking dollars and cents here. Don’t rely on Amazon—which looks out strictly for Number One—to set standards for the industry.

Another lesson for educators: Phase in E carefully, and, as noted above, think about differences between subjects. I’d suspect that English Lit would lend itself far, far better to e-textbooks and other e-books than most other subjects—just so it was easy for students and professors to find and sync their places within books. Shared annotations would also be good. Too bad that the IDPF has yet to come up with an industry standard for shared annotations.

As for the ePub Interop Group mentioned in comments accompanying a TeleRead post, I’m rooting for it to come up with workable standards for shared annotations if the IDPF won’t. But Google shows no messages posted later than April 3 from the group on any subject. What’s going on, or not going on?

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