History e-textbooks: Not worth the trouble?

11 02 2011

“Publishers Struggle to Get Professors to Use Latest E-Textbook Features.” So says a post over at Wired Campus yesterday:

Publishers studying the effectiveness of their latest interactive e-textbooks are finding that the biggest challenge is getting professors to use the new features of the digital texts.

“On the instructor side, that’s where the inertia is,” says Jay Chakrapani, McGraw-Hill’s digital general manager for higher education. “That’s the biggest challenge that we’re all facing.”

So let me get this straight: We should all adapt e-textbooks since they have all these lovely bells and whistles, but the people who adopt then don’t use the bells and whistles? Judging from the post, most of these bells and whistles have something to do with the ability to give reading quizzes. Perhaps the problem is that the professors involved don’t want to give reading quizzes.

As I’ve explained before here, I’ve turned my survey class over to an collection of online documents instead of a text. If I want to teach the text in class, I can call the document up on the screen at the front of the room and everyone will be on the same page at the same time. Besides, I have my own way of judging whether students understand the reading: They’re called essay tests. But that’s just for survey classes. I would never, ever do that for a smaller class where discussing the reading forms a significant part of class time.

Here’s why: As I write this I have about 45 minutes before I’m going to go up and lead a reading discussion on part of Jeremy Brecher’s, Strike! in my labor history class. I have page numbers marked in my paper copy of the book, along with passages to have students read out loud and the questions I’ll ask about each quote.

Problem 1 (if I were to use an e-textbook for this kind of teaching): Not only is there no Kindle or e-textbook of this work, Amazon doesn’t even sell it. I suspect this is a common problem for historians who tend to assign an eclectic mix of books for all the eclectic classes we teach.

Problem 2: For Kindle books (at the very least), the page numbers are hard to get at. Granted, this beats having no page numbers at all, but here’s how their new page numbering system works:

Amazon seems to have solved the problem of transferring numbers from physical, fixed-sized pages to the virtual page, where changing font sizes alter the number of “pages” a book has. The fix is clever: The Kindle only displays the page number when you press the “menu” button, working out the equivalent paper-book position on demand. And because the Kindle pages don’t correspond exactly to the printed page, it tells you the page number for the text at the top right of the screen, i.e., the first few words.

That’s a system designed to make citation possible, but in order to get everybody looking at the same page at the same time, it’s absolutely worthless. If students are all starting from scratch, I’d have to give them a phrase to search for and then wait for them. And if different e-versions of the same book don’t correspond to the same physical page numbers (a situation that would certainly be possible if you’re dealing with e versions of different versions of a classic text like Huckleberry Finn), confusion will reign.

Problem 3: I guess it depends on the reader, but if I ban laptops in class so that my students won’t be reading Facebook while I’m talking, why on earth would I want them all staring at small screens on their laps at the same time?

There are probably a few more problems here, but I can’t think of them at the moment. I do know this though: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For the vast majority of my classes, plain old paperbacks work fine.



2 responses

1 03 2011
Self-Publishing Review | Blog | e-Textbooks: How do they stack up against traditional textbooks? | Write Your Own E-book

[…] Because I am an Equal opportunity blogger, I will occasionally highlight the dissenting point of view. I have included a link to the professor’s blog so you can make your own judgment. History e-textbooks: Not worth the trouble? […]

30 11 2011
Heavy student backpacks haven’t gone anywhere yet. « More or Less Bunk

[…] So if you have no intention of making students actually read what you’re assigning, by all means let them buy the cheaper electronic copy. If all their reading is at home and not a central part of the classroom experience, by all means let them buy the cheaper electronic copy. And thank you Courseload for recognizing the fact that all texts (electronic or otherwise) need page numbers, which is something that I’ve complained about before. […]

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