The E-Textbook: Try It, You Will Like It?

JOSH McCAFFREY

These days, if you want to get a group of readers engaged in a lively debate just bring up the subject of e-books. Proponents of e-books enjoy their portability, their many bonus features, and the rapidly growing list of titles available for quick downloading. Lovers of print swear that no digital device can replicate the experience of reading a traditional book: the feeling of the paper, the sight of handwritten notes in the margins, the smell of ink and glue. While I align myself more closely with the latter group I realize that e-books are not going away anytime soon. Angus Phillips agrees, and he uses his essay “Do Books Have a Future?” to look at the rise of the digital book: “From the beginnings of the digital revolution, commentators have examined the prospects for the book and wondered whether it can survive alongside new technologies. In an age when text can be accessed all over the world through a variety of devices, and when the book competes with many other forms of entertainment, does it seem a dated and outmoded technology or a reliable and robust companion?”[1] Whether the printed book’s future resembles the video cassette tape (practically extinct) or the DVD (diminished but still viable) depends on who you ask, but there is no question that e-books have taken off in a big way.[2] However, this is less true when it comes to digital textbooks. Overall, students have been slow to adopt e-textbooks.[3] This would seem to be good news for fans of traditional print books, but sales figures do not tell the whole story. Rather, I posit that there are barriers that have prevented e-textbooks from being more popular with students.

In her new book Worlds Onscreen: the Fate of Reading in a Digital World, American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron found that students have an overwhelming preference for printed books, particularly when it comes to academic reading. Baron and her colleagues surveyed more than 300 university students in the United States, Japan, Germany, and Slovakia and found that when “students were given a choice of various media—including hard copy, cell phone, tablet, e-reader, and laptop—92 percent said they could concentrate best in hard copy.”[4] The students Baron surveyed had a range of reasons for preferring print, with distraction being a primary one: only one percent of the students surveyed said they multitask while reading a printed book compared to ninety percent who said they do it while reading online.[5] In another recent study, twenty-five percent of students said “the e-textbook negatively impacted their cognitive engagement, causing them to read more slowly, to skim more, to skip around within the text, and to be distracted more easily.”[6] As someone who did not grow up in the age of social media, this makes complete sense to me. But most of today’s college students are so-called “digital natives.” I find it surprising that so many of them shun e-textbooks when they spend a huge portion of their day online, successfully toggling back and forth from one task to another. Could there be other factors at work here?

In his essay, Phillips cites e-textbooks as an example of how a book can “work with and alongside other media.”[7] Indeed, the range of media available to writers and publishers of e-textbooks is vast. In its most basic form, an e-textbook is simply an electronic version of a printed textbook. Even if it comes with no other features, if a student can read a textbook on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone it technically qualifies as an e-textbook. But nowadays, e-textbooks are capable of doing much more than simply displaying words on a screen. Some e-textbooks include interactivity such as pop-up dictionaries and embedded links to web sites. Enhanced e-textbooks may come with podcasts and videos, social networking widgets, and tools that allow students to not only capture notes but to share them with other students.[8] Similar to how an online message board works, note sharing allows students to be part of a digital community where they can discuss and debate a text. This screenshot from an e-textbook for future teachers shows how note sharing works:[9]

Emporia

When education professor Elizabeth Dobler surveyed students at Emporia State University about their e-textbook preferences she learned that digital note sharing “proved to be the feature most frequently and positively mentioned in the students’ comments. . . . The experience created a feeling of connection among group members through their shared experience of reading the digital text and having the opportunity to pose a question about the text to their small group and receive a reply. Essentially the note sharing feature fostered the adaptation of a social practice in which many students are familiar, social networking, into a learning practice.”[10] That a textbook can be more than just a channel by which students receive information—that it can help foster engagement, collaboration, and a shared experience—has the potential to be a game-changer in academia. If ever there were an age group that seems perfectly suited to embrace such technology it is college students. And more than one study shows that students are enthusiastic about e-textbooks after they have an opportunity to use them in a meaningful way.

The results of one such study were released in 2013 at Virginia State University, where researchers did an exploratory study of a pilot program involving e-textbooks. For the pilot, 991 students in nine business courses received e-textbooks instead of traditional textbooks. At the end of the semester the students answered questions about their experience. Overall, the results were quite positive. Almost ninety-five percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the e-textbook was easy to use, and more than sixty-five percent of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “I find FWK [the publisher] digital content more useful than traditional textbooks” and “I prefer FWK to traditional textbooks.”[11] The Emporia State University study showed movement in the same direction, with twenty-two percent of students preferring e-textbooks before that study and fifty percent preferring them after the study.[12] What explains this apparent disconnect? Why are college students who have the opportunity to use e-textbooks in a meaningful way enthusiastic about them but sales remain relatively low? The answer could be that not many students get the opportunity in the first place, which is largely because of teachers.

In a typical marketplace, the producer of the good or service (in this case, the e-textbook publisher) markets directly to the consumer (in this case, the student). But in academia, the person being marketed to is the faculty member or the school itself.[13] If a teacher does not want to use an e-textbook (and that is assuming a decent e-textbook is even available in his or her field), publishers are essentially shut out of that classroom; students are reluctant to buy a textbook that does not have a teacher’s endorsement. “Students, especially younger students, are very unwilling to do what they perceive could put them at a disadvantage,” says Peter Frank, CEO of Texts.com. “They really just want to get off on the right foot.”[14] And if a teacher does use an e-textbook, the quality of the student’s experience depends on how skilled the teacher is at using the technology. A study co-authored by researchers from Indiana University showed that students “were much more likely to prefer e-textbooks when their instructor actively used the e-textbook (e.g., added their own annotations); student preferences were the lowest in courses where the instructor viewed the textbook only as a reference and made no use of it when teaching.”[15] I wonder if this last point is a central reason why studies like Naomi Baron’s show that students still prefer print textbooks over their digital counterparts. If students have only used an e-textbook to read copy then they have not utilized the many added features that a well-designed e-textbook can offer. It makes sense that many of these students would prefer a hard copy that they can flip through, mark up with notes, and possibly sell back to the campus bookstore at the end of the semester. But if variables such as cost and instructor skill level were controlled, would those same students still prefer a paper textbook after using an e-textbook that was loaded with tools and extras designed to enhance their understanding of the subject matter? That is a question that deserves further study.

In the end, whether a student prefers digital or print is less important than whether that student is actually learning. And when the educational effectiveness of e-textbooks is compared to print textbooks the results are mixed. Some studies show that the format does not influence how well a student does, while others show that certain e-textbook features such as explanatory footnotes may greatly enhance student performance.14 Many of the articles I read for this assignment arrived at the same point: each student learns differently. Some students will always prefer traditional textbooks that they can mark up with sticky notes and yellow highlighters. Other students are so adept with technology that using a digital device to read—and interact with—their textbook feels completely natural. But before anyone writes off the e-textbook as a trend that will never catch on, it is important to consider whether the technology has even been given a fair shot at success.

NOTES

  1. Angus Phillips, “Does the Book Have a Future?,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, eds. Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007).
  2. Claire Cain Miller and Julie Bosman, “E-Books Outsell Print Books at Amazon,” The New York Times, May 19, 2011.
  3. Andrew Paul Feldstein and Mirta Maruri Martin, “Understanding Slow Growth in the Adoption of E-Textbooks: Distinguishing Paper and Electronic Delivery of Course Content,” International Research in Education 1, no. 1 (2013), http://www.macrothink.org/journal/index.php/ire/article/view/4071.
  4. Alicia Robb, “92 Percent of College Students Prefer Reading Print Books to E-Readers,” New Republic, January 14, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120765/naomi-barons-words-onscreen-fate-reading-digital-world.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Elizabeth Dobler, “e-Textbooks: A Personalized Learning Experience or a Digital Distraction?,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58, no. 6 (2015): 482-91.
  7. Angus Phillips, “Does the Book Have a Future?”
  8. Andrew Paul Feldstein and Mirta Maruri Martin, “Understanding Slow Growth in the Adoption of E-Textbooks: Distinguishing Paper and Electronic Delivery of Course Content.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Elizabeth Dobler, “e-Textbooks: A Personalized Learning Experience or a Digital Distraction?”
  11. Andrew Paul Feldstein and Mirta Maruri Martin, “Understanding Slow Growth in the Adoption of E-Textbooks: Distinguishing Paper and Electronic Delivery of Course Content.”
  12. Elizabeth Dobler, “e-Textbooks: A Personalized Learning Experience or a Digital Distraction?,”
  13. Steven Melendez, “Why Can’t E-Books Disrupt the Lucrative College Textbook Business?,” Fast Company, April 8, 2014, http://www.fastcolabs.com/3028855/why-cant-e-books-disrupt-the-lucrative-college-textbook-business.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Alan R. Dennis, Kelly O. McNamara, Stacy Morrone, Joshua Plaskoff, “Improving Learning with eTextbooks,” IU eTexts, http://etexts.iu.edu/files/Improving%20learning%20with%20etextbooks.pdf
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7 Comments

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  1. Hello!

    Your question, “Why are college students who have the opportunity to use e-textbooks in a meaningful way enthusiastic about them but sales remain relatively low?” is followed by the indication that professors are not giving students opportunities to use e-books, which is why students do not prefer them. I love this point since illuminates two underlying reasons students would avoid e-books: their desire to please their professors and their ability to easily have meaningful interactions with the text. I love how it digs out one of the main motivations for students that is often overlooked: pleasing their professors who they view as their mentors. If a professor does not use an e-book, then, the student is not likely to, even if they enjoy the e-book. Are students really going to choose an e-book tailored to their style of learning (audio or visual) if it might cost them their grade? It’s not likely. Then, on the flip side, are professors willing to allow students to personalize their books without lowering their grade? Again, for various reasons, it doesn’t seem likely. I believe there may be some valid reasons for professors to require certain textbooks; for instance, there could be a particular edition of importance not found in an e-book. However, I also believe there is currently a type of stigma associated with those who use e-books– that they are somehow a bit lazier than other students. Because of this, it seems as though some type of truce needs to be made between students and teachers– a truce that sets the fear of grades and the stigma of e-books aside to focus entirely on what produces actual learning for students. This, I think, should happen even if students learn in very non-traditional ways, such as listening to audio books. Of course, new ways of communicating about books will then need to be developed. A student who has listened to an audio book may be less likely to give specific textual references in a classroom discussion. That leads to the following dilemma: if we allow entirely divergent learning styles, how do we also allow them to converge in the classroom?

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  2. Josh,
    Your post does such a great job applying the Phillips article to the e-textbook world. Most of our class discussions have explored digital publications in regards to novels or poetry, but as your post highlights, textbook editors must also grapple with these new digital possibilities. It seems that for some students, the most effective e-textbooks are the ones are offer engaging ways to interact with the text and with other students. Certainly the rise of these digital technologies helped develop creative ideas such as podcasts, note-sharing tools, and embedded links within the textbook. But rather than completely eliminate the printed textbook, I wonder if print textbook publishers could learn a thing or two from these creative e-book ideas. It seems that the old “Chapter, then illustrations, then study questions” format might be outdated for print textbooks, especially now that digital technologies can offer things like social media interaction and podcasts. Students, as you have pointed out, learn in a variety of different ways, and that print textbook format lacks the creativity that the e-textbook appears to offer. Maybe there is a way for printed textbooks (which seem to lack creativity) and e-textbooks (which can sometimes present too much information) to work together in some kind of “happy textbook medium.” Suppose the printed textbook directed students to an e-textbook podcast or video. The two formats could work together rather than compete with each other. Of course, this “happy medium” may be entirely unrealistic (economically) in today’s publishing industry.
    Thanks for your fascinating post!

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  3. Thanks for a great post, Josh! It’s so interesting that even though many people are excited about e-books because of their portability, students are slow to adopt these new technologies. My first expectation would have been that students would be eager to discard heavy and cumbersome print textbooks in favor of portable and easy-to-manage e-books, but your paper does an excellent job of analyzing why this is not the case. Students say that they can concentrate better (with fewer distractions) on a print copy, and perhaps if students do not feel that that they can learn from e-textbooks as easily and effectively as from print, there is something to be said about the quality of reading experienced by readers of e-books outside the classroom. If people are reading e-books for pleasure (rather than hard copies), are they losing some depth of reading in the process or having a less rich experience because of various online distractions?

    You also show that college students who get the chance to use e-textbooks in a meaningful way (using collaborative elements and, presumably, being properly trained in the use of the e-textbook) often come to prefer e-textbooks to print copies. This study you mention seems very important because it shows that educators play an important role in how well e-textbooks are received (and in how effective these online texts are as components of the learning process). But the problem, then, is that students whose teachers are not well trained in the use of e-textbooks will gain less from these resources. Hopefully as time progresses, e-textbooks will become user-friendly enough that students will not have to rely as much on their teachers’ knowledge of them, but it currently appears that insufficiently instructed students view e-textbooks as distracting rather than as a tool that can enhance their learning process.

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  4. Hello Josh,
    Your post brings up some interesting points about e-books, which were enlightening for me. I found it surprising that students in the Baron research overwhelmingly chose paper copies of textbooks when given the choice. This is not what I would have expected from the “electronic generation”either. I do, however, find it a relief that electronic editions are not always the preferred method of information dissemination.

    I think electronic book editions definitely have a place. They are useful for people with learning challenges, and the ability to manipulate text size is a helpful tool for many. Also, the convenience for pleasure reading on tablets is a definite space saving tool. If educators prefer the interactivity, perhaps they could be used as supplemental material, and an optional addition to the material.

    It is somewhat ironic though, that students have become so disconnected that they feel the only way to feel connected to a group is through electronic social network note-sharing. If traditional “old fashioned” methods such as reading/discussion groups were used, perhaps this need for electronic social communication would not even exist. I say leave the electronic editions out of the classroom (for now) and focus on the face to face communication and sharing of ideas that are missing from the electronic methods.

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  5. Mark Van Dusseldorp May 4, 2015 — 10:29 pm

    I’d like to follow up briefly on a point that Pearl made. She suggested that “there is something to be said about the quality of reading experienced by readers of e-books outside the classroom.” I feel that this is true, and I often find that people use e-books precisely for texts that don’t require a whole lot of attention for the purposes of passing the time on a long commute. It has always seemed difficult for me to concentrate on a digital device, even if has no other features like web browsing, and it seems that other people often say the same thing. It appears that there is something about the actual material of the text that affects cognition, then, and this is why I’m skeptical of electronic textbooks. I have enough trouble concentrating as it is.

    I’m also skeptical of “digital natives” and the presumption that we know how to operate and think with technology. It’s kind of assumed that since we were born into it, we just learned how to incorporate it into our lives and we function normally with it. I don’t believe at all that “digital natives” are as capable of multitasking as we assume. Dealing with several types of information at once doesn’t mean that we’re processing it thoroughly are correctly.

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  6. issuesinprofessionalediting May 7, 2015 — 4:35 am

    Josh,

    I can’t agree with you more when you quoted that “the e-textbook negatively impacted their cognitive engagement, causing them to read more slowly, to skim more, to skip around within the text, and to be distracted more easily.” I, too, also it surprising that these students don’t know how to navigate electronic resources more efficiently. As a teacher, I find myself assuming that students know how to effectively work while using technology. Yet, I only think this way because they are using technology all the time. Which leads me to also assume that students know plan B—how to use print material and other resources that aren’t as distracting.

    My generation grew up in the merger of technology. We learned the values of print and how to use them while also exploring the Internet during its boom. We learned how to navigate and use both. We also learned when to use print vs. digital. Today, I think we tend to forget that this younger generation has only grown up with digital technology. Which makes me question: Are we doing a good job teaching these younger students how to navigate their academic and social digital worlds. Whose responsibility is it to show them the way?

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  7. Selena Efthimiou May 7, 2015 — 4:40 am

    Josh,
    I can’t agree with you more when you quoted that “the e-textbook negatively impacted their cognitive engagement, causing them to read more slowly, to skim more, to skip around within the text, and to be distracted more easily.” I, too, also it surprising that these students don’t know how to navigate electronic resources more efficiently. As a teacher, I find myself assuming that students know how to effectively work while using technology. Yet, I only think this way because they are using technology all the time. Which leads me to also assume that students know plan B—how to use print material and other resources that aren’t as distracting.

    My generation grew up in the merger of technology. We learned the values of print and how to use them while also exploring the Internet during its boom. We learned how to navigate and use both. We also learned when to use print vs. digital. Today, I think we tend to forget that this younger generation has only grown up with digital technology. Which makes me question: Are we doing a good job teaching these younger students how to navigate their academic and social digital worlds. Whose responsibility is it to show them the way?

    Like

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