Is it time for professors to start banning e-books in their classes?

16 09 2011

UD has a link up this morning to an article about banning laptops in classrooms at Case Western which is actually about a lot more than banning laptops at Case Western. It’s about a clash of cultures:

“I feel as if every student should be in charge of his or her own learning,” Patel explained. “Every student should have the opportunity to take notes in the manner that is best for them, be it with a pencil and paper, iPad and stylus, or laptop computer.”

While many university community members may continue to disagree on the validity of technology in the classroom, the growing place technology has in our lives and society cannot be ignored.

I agree. And since it can’t be ignored, I think it’s time to ask whether they’re going to live in our culture or whether we’re going to have to live in their’s.

Ever since I saw my first textbook on a phone earlier this semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about the costs and benefits of electronic textbooks. On the one hand, if students can get an expensive textbook at a lower price, then that’s a good thing. I’m also sympathetic to the notion that students shouldn’t have to break their backs carrying thirty pounds of textbooks around campus.

However, I’m still increasingly convinced that the costs of e-texts significantly outweigh the benefits. The first cost is distraction. Earlier this week, I found out that my publisher has accepted my completed draft of a short text on late American industrialization with minor revisions (so look for Industrialization and the Transformation of America, 1865-1919 by yours truly coming next fall to a university bookstore near you). One of the revisions my editor wants is for me to put links into the electronic version, links to stable websites that reveal the source material or supplement the narrative. On one hand, it’s nice to know that interested people can find interesting resources inspired by my text. On the other hand, surfing in the middle of the book is going to kill the narrative arc of the whole thing.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if students are reading it at home, but if you actually teach your texts (like I do in upper level classes) this could be the end of the world, not because I expect students to read the whole text during the fifty minute period but because their phones or their iPads can do the same things that laptops do. Students can check Facebook or shop for shoes as easily on a tablet computer as they can on a laptop. Think about it: if you ban laptops in class already, banning e-textbook readers is the next logical step.

We historians also should have a problem with footnotes: not in teh text, but in our papers. I’ve covered this one before, but it bears repeating: at the moment, many e-texts don’t have page numbers, which means they can’t be cited with the precision that our profession demands. But there’s also the problem of platform consolidation. Currently, e-textbook companies have to adapt their work for multiple platforms: Android, Windows, etc. What happens if e-books all get page numbers, but the pages numbers end up being different in different versions of the same text? Just try checking for plagiarism then!

I’ll offer one exception to this ban e-textbook rule though: If you don’t actually teach the textbook you assign, then it really doesn’t matter how they students read it, does it? According to a recent PIRG survey, 70% of students have not bought a textbook because they thought it was too expensive. How they can pass the class without the textbook is a mystery to me, but then again, I’m a historian. I don’t assign a traditional survey text anymore, and all my papers and discussions are based on what the students are supposed to read. The students who can pass the course without the textbook are probably enrolled with professors who read their PowerPoint slides and from the textbook verbatim during lectures anyways.*

* That last link is via UD again.

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3 responses

3 10 2011
A book is not a toy. « More or Less Bunk

[...] the distractions that Amazon has embedded for them, while others still check their Facebook page. A Kindle is no different from a laptop or a cellphone. They’re all equally [...]

25 11 2011
Why can’t they leave well enough alone? « More or Less Bunk

[...] I might want to assign, but let’s assume they do. What if I don’t want all my students tapping on their phones and laptops during class since they could spend the whole period on Facebook and I wouldn’t be any wiser? What if I [...]

3 12 2012
World History MOOC Report 14: In which I am disappointed in Jeremy Adelman. « More or Less Bunk

[...] Kelli Marshall about student use of laptops in the classroom. This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, which I also think applies here because if you think it’s bad when the [...]

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