The Jolly Librarian Considers e-Textbooks

On Monday night, I had dinner with two friends when the topic of eBooks came up. We all had mobile devices; we all had books downloaded on them. But our experiences were very different. One friend no longer read “Paper” books; she read everything online. On the other hand, I found that I only read my eBooks when I’m waiting somewhere. At home, for leisure, I read paperbacks.

This conversation came to mind this morning when an online discussion took place about eTextbooks. Our online learning director noted that many students didn’t like them. Others pointed out that, once the learning curve was overcome, many found them preferable.

The Jolly Librarian argues for all things in moderation (except for ice cream and Snow Patrol concerts). So I come down in the middle. eTextbooks and regular textbooks are wonderful except when they’re not. And both versions should be offered for student use.

Here, in my humble opinion, are the pros and cons of eTextooks:

  1. Convenience: Anyone who has had to buy a rolling suitcase to carry their books around knows that downloading five books on a tablet is a blessing. The books are always accessible, so if a student decides to drop in the Learning Center on a day when he/she doesn’t have a math class, the math book is available. Students waiting in line for coffee can peruse a chapter while they wait. I guess you really can’t argue against convenience, so I think there may be no cons here.
  2. Extras:  Most eTextbooks come loaded with hot links that define words, show background information, and provide films of concepts in action.                                                                                     There are interactive quizzes that allow students to check their progress.   However, there can be some drawbacks. Many faculty do not use those extras; neither do students. There is, obviously, a finite amount of time that students can spend on any given course, and simply loading up a book with these features does not equal an enhanced learning experience.
  3. Ease of Use: For those of us with the iBook or Kindle apps, obtaining a book is easy-peasy. But that’s not universally true. Yesterday, three of us in the library tried to help a student load his keycode so that he could get access to his online learning materials. A hour later, two keycodes later, we told him he would simply have to email his instructor. And on my own iPad, when I try to highlight a section, there’s an even chance that the highlight tool will appear or the page will turn. And I’m not a novice.
  4. Distractions: In one survey I read, students preferred physical books for one simple reason. There were fewer distractions. And I have to agree. At night, when I study my French app, it’s rare that I don’t also end up checking email and Facebook “just one more time” and playing just one more round of Words with Friends.

In twenty years, we may have a generation of college students who have never owned a physical book. But we’re not there now. So I think that best answer is to provide both eBook and physical book options.

For those of you interested, here is the survey on college ebook use.

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