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Reading the Future
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Doug Rowlett of Houston Community College says he and his staff worked hard to give students plenty of e-reader options so they wouldn't be locked into a device that might not be around in a few years.

Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel

Digital Textbooks Are the Future of Learning

Digital textbooks are slowly gaining traction at colleges and universities as a tool that can improve teaching and learning on campus.

posted May 17, 2011  |  Appears in the June/July 2011 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Digital textbooks are slowly gaining traction at colleges and universities as a tool that can improve teaching and learning on campus.

Paul Garcia is a practical guy. He knows that many of his students work full-time jobs, and by the time they walk into his anatomy class at Houston Community College in Texas, they're exhausted. He works hard to keep their attention, but he realizes they can't always absorb three hours' worth of material. So before each lecture he mikes up, and using his tablet computer and software from his class's textbook publisher, he records his lectures and posts them online so students can refer back to them at their convenience.

In class, Garcia uses interactive flashcards, and he's in the process of developing an online interactive lab. Students throughout the college take advantage of the text-to-speech feature on electronic readers and listen as chapters are read aloud to them, for example, while working out at the gym, preparing dinner or driving to class. "It's sort of a brave new world for us," says Garcia, associate chairman of Life Sciences at HCC's Southwest campus in Texas.

Those are just a few of the changes that have taken place in classrooms since HCC Southwest launched its e-reader program in 2009. The pilot yielded promising results, including higher grades among students with devices, and some not-so-promising results, such as students balking at the cost of digital books. But while there are still some hurdles toward mass adoption, it's clear that e-readers have a strong future in higher education.

"It's sweeping down on us so quickly," says Doug Rowlett, instructional design coordinator at HCC Southwest." It's exciting, but right now there are more questions than answers."

One issue is devices. HCC deliberately tried different devices to see which worked best and gave students more options, says Rowlett. In fact, many students asked if they could get digital books on their smartphones, which he is investigating. Also, since the e-reader market is in its infancy, he didn't want to focus solely on one device that might not be around in a few years.

Other questions run the gamut: Are the devices affordable enough for students to purchase when the pilots run their course? If so, will e-textbooks be available across different platforms? Do they truly foster learning? And what about IT? What maintenance, training and other logistical issues will e-readers require?

"It's clear that there are great aspirations and great expectations," says Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project. "But I think it's going to be a long, iterative process. We won't see 50 percent of college students with e-readers in fall 2012."

At What Cost?

Lowering the price that students pay for books was a big driver behind HCC's e-reader pilot, but students objected strongly to the cost of e-books, even those that are half the price of their print counterparts, explains Rowlett. The college polled students, and most felt $25 to $40 is a fair price for a book they can't hold or sell back.

However, Garcia says it's important to look at costs long-term. He says the school needs to do a better job explaining that students in two-year programs can recoup their investments in the devices and books. For instance, the anatomy book for his class is close to $200. The electronic version bundled with software is $75.

Rowlett says the e-reader pilot really has found ways to bring down expenses for students. For instance, all the materials for a 19th-century literature class at HCC are available in the public domain. "Students were just amazed when they walked into the classroom and the professor said there are no textbook costs for this class," says Rowlett. The pilot team also recommended that financial aid cover the devices for those who can't afford them.

Another challenge is sorting through the different sources of content, adds Anne Behler, information literacy librarian at Penn State University Libraries, which started piloting Sony Readers in fall 2008. If a science textbook can be viewed only with Amazon's proprietary format for the Kindle, students can't have their choice of devices. But, adds Binky Lush, web developer at Penn State University Libraries, that problem is already disappearing, as most devices use open-standard formats, such as EPUB.

The point of moving to e-readers isn't just about saving money, says Larry Mers, director of telecommunications and instructional computing support at HCC.

"What we were trying to do was integrate more technology into the classroom," he explains. Students expect it, and rightfully so, as it's what they'll find in the workplace.

A goal of the Penn State pilot has been to see if e-readers influence student comprehension or participation. "So far, the answer is no," says Diana Gruendler, senior lecturer in the Department of English. She taught two freshman composition honors classes, one using traditional textbooks and the other using Sony Readers. The e-readers engaged students, Gruendler says, but there were no differences in participation or understanding.

HCC's English department had a similar outcome. Students said they could get more information using the Entourage Edge devices, but those who used paper books scored higher on quizzes than those with the devices. However, there were slight gains (half-letter-grade jumps) in English classes using the Kindle, says Department Chair Laurel Lacroix.

The results in HCC's science department were more impressive. The department tested students at the beginning of the semester, and the scores between those using e-readers and those using textbooks were similar. On tests at the end of the class, however, students using e-readers scored, on average, a full letter grade higher. "We don't know why," says Rowlett. "It might be the 'gee whiz!' factor." But, he adds, "It was intriguing."

The mixed results stem from a combination of factors. Older students and those in classes relating to their majors did best with tablets that offer a variety of features (video, web browsing, e-mail), whereas younger students or those in required courses tended to do their best work with straight e-readers.

An important feature for all students is the ability to annotate text. When it comes to note taking, students tend to prefer tablets, especially the Edge, which includes a stylus pen. But they consistently like that the devices let them bookmark portions of text and automatically pull them out to study.

While e-readers haven't affected grades in Gruendler's classes at Penn State, she has noticed a difference in the class dynamic. Her students launched a virtual book club in which they blog about books they're reading and invite the public to join in. The response has been overwhelming, says Gruendler.

Digital books accounted for less than 3% of textbook sales in fall 2010, but are expected to climb to 10% to 15% by 2012.

SOURCE: National Association of College Stores

Teaching the Teachers

Aside from cost, the biggest challenge of HCC's e-reader pilot has been getting professors to change. One professor wanted to ban all wireless communication from his class, and Rowlett had to explain that if students aren't paying attention to him, it may be because he doesn't know how to engage them.

"They're not a captive audience," Rowlett says. HCC offers a program to get faculty "out of the chalk age," which teaches professors to incorporate digital devices into their classrooms.

Other faculty members love the new technology. Many have expressed interest in creating their own digital textbooks – combining selections from different resources and media – and major publishers are starting to offer such options.

"They've seen what's happened to the music industry," Rowlett says of textbook publishers. "They know they have to adapt to this new technology to survive."

Easy Does It

What do e-readers mean for IT departments? Not much, says Larry Mers, director of telecommunications and instructional computing support at Houston Community College Southwest. There were so few issues with the devices that maintenance was practically nonexistent, he says. "Just keep your screen clean," advises Mers.

Doug Rowlett, instructional design coordinator at HCC Southwest, was surprised at how durable they are. Of the 200 devices used in the pilot, only a few failed – and that was because students dropped them. Another plus is that the batteries last far longer than most notebooks, which is practical for classrooms with limited outlets.

Penn State's library created tip sheets that professors handed out with the devices and posted online. "But our students today are so used to picking up a device and figuring out how to use it within the first five minutes," says Anne Behler, information literacy librarian at Penn State University Libraries.

Most students and faculty agree that the portability of e-readers is a vast improvement to textbooks. "You hear some romanticized language about how much one loves the feel of a book," says Diana Gruendler, senior lecturer in the Department of English. "But the portability outweighs the love."

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