Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Something for Nothing

Back when I was planning for this semester, I got enthused about a free/paperless online textbook option. Maybe you’re wondering how that’s working out for me.

76% of my students decided to spend nothing and just read the textbook online. Another 17% of them purchased the “access pass” which allows them to download all or part of the book as PDF or ePub + various online study aids. That makes over 95%. And exactly one student purchased her own copy of the book as a printed paperback from the get-go. So as far as “ease of adoption,” the free & online versions get it hands down.

A couple of weeks into class, I asked for a short minute of writing on what’s going well this term, and what’s not going so well. I teach at 8:30 am (yup!), so naturally a lot of the comments talked about that (ranging from “I have a hard time waking up” and I think I might have written that one myself, to “I’m surprised to find I like this as a class time”). But a few touched on issues related to book format, and almost universally those students don’t like reading a textbook online. I don’t blame them. It’s no reflection on the specific publisher, which actually has a better user interface than most. Reading textbooks online or on a tablet/iPad is definitely different and takes some getting used to. Despite publishers’ attempts to add these features, highlighting, note-taking, tapeflagging and so on are just awkward or impossible with an ebook. But purchasing the printed book instead seems a cost none of them are willing to absorb. They’d rather get it free *and* complain about how hard it is to use. Interesting.

I myself have found the online book a mixed bag to use (and again, this is not a review or critique of this particular textbook, just of the format in general). I don’t think this experiment has yet succeeded or failed – the jury is still out. I have a paper exam copy which mainly stays at home. On the one hand I like being able to print out chapters & carry them around instead of the whole book, but on the other hand I find myself PRINTING OUT CHAPTERS. How non-green is that? Shame on me. The online version doesn’t have page numbers, so in discussion I can’t say, “let’s all turn to page 78.” I have to say, instead: “in section 4.2.3, somewhere near the middle of that big block of text…” and the lack of page numbers in the online version makes it hard for my students to be precise when they footnote quotes from the text.

Since my students voted on course content and we’re leaving out vast amounts of US history, I don’t feel guilty for making my students buy an expensive text and then only assigning small chunks of it. So for course models like mine where some coverage is sacrificed for uncoverage or for deeper focus, a free book or readings cobbled together from open online sources might make a lot of sense. It doesn’t have the heft (financial or physical) of a “real” book, but it also doesn’t have the authoritative baggage that comes with a book. I don’t hear my students saying “the book says” as often, maybe because it doesn’t feel like reading a book, it feels like dipping into a website for information and that’s a familiar mode for many of them---for good or ill. (PS, I also discovered that my same textbook is being piloted as a $50 "webtext" by Soomo; I might survey my students to see what they think of this and whether it would have been a more appealing option than the ebook alone).

Anyone else using an ebook? Are your students enthusiastic, hostile or ambivalent? How much is price an issue in your considerations? Does asking all students to buy or rent a book communicate to them that the knowledge they gain from it is valuable, and is that something which is irretrievably lost when the reading costs nothing?


  1. Thanks for this post!
    I have not used an eBook in class, for several reasons; first, knowing my own short attention span, I feel it would be simply tempting fate to ask my students to try to focus on a textbook with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. only a click away. At least with a paper book the more disciplined students can shut those out and focus on reading.
    Second, it invites lots of possibilities for technological foul-ups (whether real or fictionalized). Let's say a student's computer really does crash the night before an exam - can I legitimately say "Well, too bad - life's not fair"?
    Finally, I've seen some research, mirrored by my own experience on the Kindle, that indicates recall of information is significantly weaker with eBooks - it seems the brain uses spatial location and context to cue memory.
    Perhaps your students are not saying "the book says..." as often because they simply can't recall it very well?

    I understand the appeal of ebooks, and know they work well for some, but until the concerns above can be assuaged, I will stick to paper like Charlton Heston - until they take it out of my cold dead hands. :-)

  2. Tona, Thanks for the update. I was wondering how it was going. Keep us informed. Long live paper (and I don't mean printing up the chapters at school)!

  3. Kudos to Tona for such a great experiment. I am not sure I understand the previous comments (the book is online 24/7 and in print so what possible excuse could a student have that they would not have with a book that was only available in paper?). I see that one of the comments is from the author of an expensive textbook. Perhaps he will also make his book freely available online as well?