The verdict on eText: Not yet

Reprinted from the Dec. 12, 2013, CIO News

In less than 20 years, personal computers and the Internet have changed the way we do nearly everything in our lives, reading included. But many technologies are still in development. One of those is eTexts. ISU was part of a recent study in which textbook content was provided online rather than in a traditional published and bound book.

The eText pilot took place fall semester 2012 in a program sponsored by Internet2 and EDUCAUSE. Each student who took a course in the pilot received an eText at no cost. An e-reader platform, called Courseload, was integrated with Iowa State's Blackboard learning management system.

Was it a success? Depends on who you ask. Going forward, the success of electronic textbooks will most likely be based on the type of content provided.

For kinesiology professor Greg Welk, the experiment was a success. Welk developed the text that was converted to eText by educational publisher McGraw Hill for the pilot.

Students in charge of their own learning

"With the explosion of the Internet and the Google mindset, students today are very savvy," Welk said. "This stuff comes naturally to them." Material in an eText flows more like a magazine, he said, and students can jump around between digestible chunks of information. "It allows students to be in charge of their own learning."

For example, one hyperlink within Welk's text takes the reader directly to the website of the American Heart Association, where the student can observe a demonstration of the latest CPR technique.

Another feature Welk likes about the eText is that he can annotate the text and share his annotation with his students. "That way I can show them, 'this is what's important here.'"

English lecturer Carla Weiner, however, isn't a fan of that particular feature. "I think some students over generalized the highlights, believing they only had to read highlights and not the rest of the text. So it became a shortcut rather than a true impact on learning," she said.

One eText book little more than converted PDF

Weiner teaches English 302, business communications, and for her class, the eText book was little more than a converted PDF. There were no hyperlinks or interactive features.

Some of the content for her class would be appropriate for more interactive text, she believes; however, not just prescriptive activities like true/false or multiple-choice quizzes.

"It would be great if the textbook had links to videos that inspired students to think about a scenario where they draw conclusions and record observations as short answers, followed by the opportunity to listen to an expert's view on the topic," she said.

Weiner said it was her observation that students read less of the text when it was online than when they have an actual book for her class.

"Students told me that when the book wasn't right in front of them, it was out of sight, out of mind."

Despite all the advances the Internet has brought, Weiner said "authors and publishers need to create content specifically designed for an online reading experience on devices that students will use. That takes time and a new way of thinking. Until they do, the online reading experience of textbooks falls short."

The report for the pilot project (PDF) is available on the eText project page of the CIO website.

What will eTexts cost?

As indicated in the report, students liked the free textbook in the pilot, and assume that electronic text will be cheaper than printed books. In fact, eText content eventually may be more expensive because of all the additional content that can be leveraged from other sources.

Students think it should be cheaper because of the savings in printing costs, but that ignores the potential of hyperlinks to new resources, and other things that print can't do.

There are market pressures that push publishers toward creating eTexts that are little more than simple PDFs, such as the eText Weiner used. It takes almost no time or money for a publisher to create an electronic version that mirrors the print text. However, it takes a lot of resources for a publisher to create a content-rich experience.  Students' demand for lower cost may well impede the publisher's ability to create a richer online experience.

One of the challenges to this technology is in the term itself. As long as you're calling it an eText, you are going to have the inevitable comparison to a print textbook. But electronic content can be so much more than that.