June 8, 2009

E-Textbooks

I found this piece at the Chronicle of Higher Ed timely. I would certainly have been among the professors interested in trying the pilot project. I've been using my own Sony Reader for a few months now, and it really is an interesting case of balancing the advantages against the challenges. We are used to thinking of a printed book as a "perfect technology," and yet depending on what you want to use that "technology" for, there are in fact some limits, particularly in an academic environment. There are physical limits, for one thing: books are heavy, and their sheer bulk can become a disincentive to actually reading them, whether you aren't able to carry them around or pack them, or just find your arms getting tired. Students are particularly vulnerable to this problem. My students may need to bring Bleak House to class for me along with a hard-cover biology textbook, a short story anthology, a psychology textbook, etc. Imagine if they had all of those books in one elegant device weighing no more than a few ounces: more of them would show up with the text you want to discuss. It's hard to search for things in a printed book, too. Most of us who read for a living have developed our own navigation aids, but there's always that moment when you think, "didn't it say this somewhere?" and it is extremely difficult and inefficient to check (again, imagine Bleak House as your text). Searchable e-books solve that problem brilliantly.

That said, e-books turn out to have their share of disadvantages too. As the article points out, all electronic devices need power to run, and though my Sony Reader's batteries are impressively long-lasting, there still comes that moment when you go to flip it on and remember you forgot to recharge it overnight. A printed book always just works. Annotations are another issue. My version of the Sony Reader allows me to bookmark and annotate; I would consider this an essential function for any academic application of e-book technology. In fact, I have found that with a little forethought as I create my notes, I can generate a custom index that becomes extremely helpful when you need to draw on your reading. On the other hand, I haven't figured out a way to move those notes from the device into any other document (there may be such a way, but I haven't learned it yet). But then, things I write in my physical books also need to be rewritten into my word processor--and it's at least as easy to find the right bit in the e-book version. But again, there are no page numbers in the e-book, because the whole point of the format is that you can resize the fonts (another plus, for my aging eyes), but that means in S something may be on page 153 that is on page 295 in L or XL. So how do you direct your students to that key passage in Bleak House? You'd have to use the fairly minimal pre-set internal bookmarks (usually chapter or volume beginnings) or the search function, either of which is less efficient than saying "everyone look at the paragraph at the bottom of page 110 in your Oxford edition"--but then, not everyone buys the assigned edition anyway...

Of course, e-books are also available for use on multi-purpose machines, i.e. computers. I do find the actual reading experience more pleasant, and less tiring for my eyes, on my Sony Reader (I've recovered from my initial disappointment about the glare created by the touch screen, partly because I really like the touch screen). The e-paper really does make a difference. But the Sony Reader does terribly with PDFs, which is a drawback for academic research, and Adobe Acrobat includes annotation functions that seem to integrate better with Office software. There's much speculation that Apple will come out with an iReader someday, and they are very good about integrating their devices with each other, so if there were such a thing, its contents might well move easily between devices and programs. Overall, I'm enthusiastic about these developments and curious to see the direction they go. I love books, but my Sony is a pretty toy too, in its own way, and easier to tuck in my purse than most paperbacks.

If any publishers want to send me e-books to try out, textbooks or other, I'll be happy to continue my reading and studying experiments and report back! Crucial to speeding up both the learning and the adoption curve is surely getting early attempts into the hands of actual users to find out what works and what doesn't. One thing that will inhibit my move towards electronic versions is that academic e-books (of the scholarly, rather than classroom, variety) is that they seem to be very expensive. Maybe this is a missed opportunity for publishers; sales of scholarly books are typically very small, but I for one would usually prefer to have my own copy rather than rely on a library one that needs constant renewal. I wonder if personal sales would take off if the price point for the e-versions came way down.

1 comment:

james said...

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