E-Textbooks: the Future?

A Library of Resources: a Thing of the Past?

Thanks to colleague Gene Rohrbaugh, Computer and Information Sciences professor here at Messiah College, for pointing me toward this interesting post from The Chronicle about an e-text program at Indiana University. I have some thoughts and concerns. Here are the basics of the program:

A game-changing e-textbook project at Indiana University—in which the university requires certain students to purchase e-textbooks and negotiates unusually low prices by promising publishers large numbers of sales—now has the participation of major textbook publishers, and university officials plan to expand the effort.

Today McGraw-Hill Higher Education announced that it has agreed to join the project, which has been in a pilot stage for more than a year. A handful of other publishers—John Wiley & Sons; Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group; W.W. Norton; and Flat World Knowledge—have signed on to the effort as well.

Here’s how it works: Students in a select group of courses are required to pay a materials fee, which gets them access to the assigned electronic textbooks or other readings for the course. The university essentially becomes the broker of the textbook sales, and because it is buying in bulk and guaranteeing a high volume, officials say they can score better prices than can the campus bookstore or other retailers.

How good are the prices? Bradley C. Wheeler, the university’s vice president for information technology who is leading the e-textbook effort, says that students save more money through the program than they would if they bought a printed book and resold it at the end of the semester (a common practice among cost-conscious students). A McGraw-Hill official said the deal gave the university a 20 percent discount off its usual e-book prices.

Sounds like a really good deal at first. As I was reading the piece, I thought it was an interesting proposition. Probably the way things are headed with all of the e-readers out there. But immediately after the selection above I came across something that made me pause:

Mr. Wheeler also said that the university’s deal with publishers gives students access to the e-textbooks for a longer period of time than publishers traditionally allow for electronic copies. Typically, the digital textbook files self-destruct after a set period of time, usually a semester or a year. For e-textbooks at Indiana’s program, students are allowed to read the electronic copies for as long as they are enrolled at the university.

I guess I should have expected this, but since I don’t use e-texts I had not realized that you can’t keep them long-term. What about building a library of resources? I never sold back a book in college. I wanted to build a library that I could turn to in the future, especially in my major (Mathematics) or minor (Statistics). I frequently turned to my undergrad texts while navigating courses my first year of graduate school in statistics. I can imagine that this would be even more of a concern in other majors, where a library of good historical texts, essential books on education and pedagogy, or anthologies of classic literature, disappearing upon graduation would be tragic. Sure, you can look up some things online, but I’ve found that having resources with which you already familiar can help to ground new material you cover later. Looking back at an old text with your notes in the margins, and which matches up with course notes you’ve also kept, can really help a graduate student to adjust to new terminology or notation in the beginning days of a new experience.

I would also think that this would apply to high school and elementary teachers. When I first started teaching in grad school, I wanted problems to offer and example data that weren’t already in the text. I didn’t want to use the examples in the text, since that would have left students with no other examples, but where to find good examples? As a young grad student, I turned to my undergrad texts and found a useful resource of data and examples with which I was already somewhat familiar. If I had been a part of this program at Indiana, I’m not sure what I would have done. In those days, online searches for data were not as simple as they would be today. Even if they had been easy, would I have had the skill to figure out which data were useful for class examples, and which would create issues (not to mention the credibility factor) that I didn’t have the time to address in class. The level of work would have been much more intense. Thankfully, I had texts written by faculty who had hand selected the examples they used to illustrate exactly the points I was trying to explain. This was an amazing help!

Perhaps this is not as big a deal as I think it is, but I really wonder if this is catering to the weaker students who end up not really needing (or at least realizing their need for) a library of resources. The type of student who is only worried about the economics and would sell their book back anyway, probably would benefit from this, though the piece notes e-texts were read at a slightly lower rate than paper texts:

Slightly more than half of the students surveyed—about 55 percent—said they read less of the e-textbook than they would have read from a printed copy, while 22 percent said they read more from the e-textbook than they would have from a printed copy.

Officials were watching closely to see whether students simply printed out the e-books and read from those paper copies. According to system logs, 68 percent of the students printed no pages, while 19 percent printed more than 50 pages.

Another interesting note here is about the printing. You might think that students could just print pages to keep for reference. However, while printing pages from e-texts is legal for those who own the book, I believe that keeping those copies once you have lost legal access to the e-text would be a violation of copyright law.

Stronger students, especially future teachers and graduate students, should be encouraged from their first year to consider building a personal collection that can support them into the future. I still have my undergrad books on the shelf of my office here at Messiah, and turn to those and other texts I’ve collected on a regular basis.

You can check out the rest of the piece here, but I’d love to hear from anyone who actually has experienced the e-text phenomenon and could offer their perspective on this. How did you feel at the time? How do you feel now? Were you concerned about it, but now realize it was no big deal? Not worried but not regret it? I’m really curious, since I have no experience with e-texts as either a student or a professor.

4 comments on “E-Textbooks: the Future?

  1. Hey Dr. Wilcock, Glad I found your blog through LinkedIn. I have a few textbooks in both e-book and good old-fashioned codex and each has strengths & weaknesses. E-books offer portability, quick searching, and generally lower cost. Paper texts are much better for taking notes in the margins since e-book notes are typically limited to text only (no math symbols & certainly no little hand-drawn distributions, etc.). I’ve also found it much easier to jump around from place to place in a standard text, which is important in a book where the authors are constantly referring back to previous equations & proofs or where important info is found in appendices or end notes. Also, e-books can have trouble dealing with the kind of complex layouts that are found in many math/science textbooks. What I’d like to see is some sort of deal where you would get both a paper & e-book copy kind of like those Blu-ray/DVD combos.

    • I’m sure they’d charge more, but I like the concept. As for jumping around, in TeX you can hyperlink references to the original equation/figure/section/page being referenced. Not clear to me why ALL e-textbooks couldn’t do this. Thanks for the response, Nathan!

  2. Very valid concerns Sam. I find myself with some of those same concerns. Of course, we deal with similar types of issues when we migrate to electronic resources: journals might be dropped from package deals for example, sometimes without our knowledge…. thanks for the post.

    • Did you see my earlier posts about the “package” deals with journals and the way that the real articles are hidden behind pay-walls for those not lucky enough to work for a school with the right journals? Would be interested in your thoughts on that. Especially with your interest in the sciences.

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