What grade do e-textbooks get? Incomplete

Molly Wood Jan 19, 2012

Apple holds an event today in New York City that is widely expected to be aimed at electronic textbooks. We’ll let you know more details as we learn them. And although you have to pay attention whenever Apple puts some muscle behind a new line of business, this is territory that many people are already deeply involved with.

There are two types of e-textbooks (for lack of a less hokey term) right now, says Mark Nelson of the National Association of College Stores. The first is just regular books transferred to a screen, the kind of books you might see on a Kindle or Nook reader. “They tend to be very static, linear, typically have little impact on learning outcomes compared to print versions, and this is where most of the e-textbooks are today,” says Nelson.

The second type is what Nelson calls the “born digital version.” Nelson says, “These are typically more interactive applications. They increasingly are tied to customized or self-paced learning, often have assessments built into them, and are more clearly linked to learning outcomes.” So not so much books as learning supplements, interactive educational companions, go ahead and pick your own 21st century description for them, it won’t be any more or less accurate than anyone else’s because this kind of product is just starting to emerge. 

This digital future sounds pretty cool, right? Well, hold on a second because there’s a hitch. Carl Harvey is a school librarian in Indiana and president of the National Association of School Librarians. He says, “There’s lots of different publishers out there, especially if you’re thinking about the elementary school market. Lots of them have their own different type of reading software for their digital books, which makes that kind of complicated when you’ve got all these different companies with their own different readers, devices. There’s not a lot of standardization at this point. ” 

Different platforms can’t always talk to each other and then technology is making problems, not solving them. “When students go to buy a digital book,” says Nelson, “they require a lot more education before they’re willing to make the purchase, because they don’t necessarily understand, OK, this book has these licensing terms, it can be used on these systems and with this environment, and the next one will have slightly different licensing terms and it can be used for a different period of time, and you need a different reader to be able to access it, so there’s a lot of confusion out there for students and that has slowed adoption at some level.”

There are other problems too: the selection of e-textbooks is poor and students don’t want to be on screens if the professor is on paper. Nelson says, “In fact there’s a number of interesting studies that have shown that students’ perception is that if they use a format other than what a faculty member uses will negatively impact their grade, even though there’s been a couple studies that show that typically, statistically there’s no difference in grade outcome regardless of which format they use.”

Apple, presumably, would like to solve all these problems and carry education into the future. But whether we get there with Apple or someone else, Nelson says we’re leaving books behind: “Particularly as we move toward true digital course materials, where it’s the interactive, where it’s tied to student learning outcomes, where it enhances the students’ success in mastering the materials, as the content moves more in that direction, the print version will increasingly become an educationally inferior product.”

Also in today’s program: the Robot Roundup! Hear about how our robot pals are emptying vacuum bags, fetching us beers, and, somewhat more importantly, ASSISTING WITH BRAIN SURGERY!

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