e-Readers and e-Textbooks: Current reality and future possibilities turned out to be easily the most interesting webinar I’ve ever attended. This Educause webinar featured Dr Jon T Rickman and Dr Roger Von Holzen from North West Missouri State University in the States and describing an initiative there around the evaluation of e-Readers and e-Textbooks over the past year.
Like other universities, North West Missouri State university had found itself under considerable pressure to deliver electronically, and the introduction of new devices in the marketplace has acted as a catalyst for an explosion in sales. There is focus on textbooks specifically in the relentless pursuit of cost reductions. NW Missouri State University is, in terms of its computing provision, unique as it has had a computer rental scheme in place for over two decades – the university charges $360 to its students for a wireless notebook computer.
They set about evaluating the e-Readers out in the marketplace and chose Sony Reader. The Kindle people at Amazon weren’t really interested in participating in the project. The Sony Reader looked attractive for a number of reasons. It was going to cost $250 per unit with bulk purchase (Kindle would have been $299 plus shipping). Sony will be transitioning to the EPUB format. The device has a 6 inch (15cm) display. Text is available in three sizes. It also uses electronic ink technology, which is almost like paper and retains good levels of readability even in strong sunlight, as well as having low power consumption and thus offering great battery life.
They had discounted the idea of offering a paper textbook rental service as the notional cost savings would have been cancelled out by the difficulties in running such a service.
The difficulties they ran into with e-Readers turned out to be considerable. For example, formatting content for e-Readers can take weeks. For campus-wide deployments there are currently not enough e-Reader-compatible e-Textbooks. Keyword searching and annotating are very important features for both students and academics, so despite the strong affinity that students have for hand-held devices, enthusiasm waned without those functions.
They also encountered a number of issues intrinsic to the e-Textbook format rather than the device. For example, the multiple components to the textbook including graphs and images, all have separate copyright. PDF format textbooks provide very restrictive options. And it turned out that what students really want from e-Textbooks is interactivity, animation and the ability to integrate content into other online tools.
They accepted that the whole area of e-Readers and e-Textbooks is subject to rapid change. It’s already the case, for instance, that keyword searching is now offered by e-Reader suppliers even though it wasn’t at the time of evaluation. Nevertheless, they were happy with their decision to move away from e-Reader provision, and instead set about making e-Textbooks available on the notebook computers that they were already renting out to students. They perceived that e-Reading devices and notebook computers are merginginto each others. They also felt uneasy that e-Readers aren’t the platform that authors are creating on – they’re actually creating the content on notebooks. With issues such as these in mind, it was hard to justify an additional $2million costs to add e-Readers to their raft of student services.
A Notebook approach to e-Textbook provision would also integrate with other software and services, including email and web access, thus meeting a key student requirement. And user support was already in place.
The delivery of a range of eTextbooks provided by five publishers to students via notebooks turned out to be simple and efficient. Students were able to complete the download of e-Textbooks with little support.
Rickman and Von Holzen don’t expect e-Textbooks to replace the traditional textbook any time soon. They foresee a transition, but expect academics to continue to select resources on the basis of content. In the meantime, they will continue their search for a new delivery platform, seeing the tablet PC with integrated eReader as an option. Overall, then, they’ve found that e-Readers simply don’t have the functionality to support the richness of e-Textbooks right now, and are more suited to a leisure-type read.