Thursday, 29 May 2014

Digital Textbooks For the Lazy Learner

On the Public Libraries of the United States blog, they discuss the practical aspect of carrying an increasing number of ebooks in libraries. According to their post, the cost to libraries is higher when stocking ebooks than physical books, and the selection is vastly decreased. Like the WSJ article, the creators of this blog are also on the side of improving both the quality and quantity of digital books. They make a strong point by saying that whether the books are physical or not doesn’t matter because either way, more access to books means more readers, which is a library’s defining goal. No matter which form people prefer to do their reading in, encouraging the pastime is a positive development in itself.

After voicing their general support, the focus turns to student book use. They (correctly) suggest that mandatory, curriculum-conforming textbooks would be both less expensive and less heavy if they were sold in an “e” format. I understand that there would be a market for those wishing to carry a lighter backpack to class, but I have to disagree with the idea that changing physical course books over to ebooks would be an improvement. Having worked in a university bookstore, I’m very familiar with what we call “Rush week,” when all the students (and their parents) pack themselves into the bookstore during the first week of classes. Though we actually have to create a line and stop people at the door to prevent overcrowding, the number of students that buy their textbooks at this time doesn’t represent the entire student body. Another unofficial Rush happens during the last week before exams at the end of each term. Clearly, this breaks students roughly into two groups: the ones who care about learning the material as they go along, and the ones who think they can speed study a 500-page astronomy textbook the night before their exam. I think e-textbooks would be great for the latter group, but totally off target for the former.

Serious students (I can speak to this because I am one) like to read and reread sections of text. We like to highlight and/or dog-ear and/or post-it note our pages. From here, the necessity of physicality in the learning experience expands to those students so committed that they have figured out what type of studier or learner they are. Kinetic learners greatly benefit from turning the pages and folding over corners to recall placement of key ideas in the text. I personally am able to remember concepts and specific words in an exam by visualizing where on the page and how far into the book they were. These are experiences that cannot be replicated on an ereader because for certain people and certain studying strategies, they just wouldn’t work.

Less committed students would be more suited to the ereader. Being able to purchase a book in e-format allows you to access the text immediately, meaning students could feel an instant gratification knowing that they HAD the textbook, but this wouldn’t necessarily get them to read it. Knowing that, if they so chose, they could read their textbook at any time would bring out the same inherent laziness which stops that same group of students from just buying their physical books at the bookstore at the start of term.

Another pitfall I see in switching textbooks over to ereaders has to do with the progression of the technology. The Public Libraries blog states that having new technology encourages children to learn. In some cases, this is true, but making the generalization is dangerous. More and more handheld devices, even those initially made to attract dedicated readers, are including games and internet accessibility as selling points. I have no problem with this in general, but I think it becomes an issue when students use those same devices to study. Obviously, anyone can get distracted while studying and there is nothing to prevent them from using their phone or laptop to watch cat videos on YouTube. However, if someone actively makes the effort to minimize distractions and leave their computer and phone at home while they go to, for example, the campus library to study, an ereader that also offers Angry Birds almost seems like an unfair temptation.

A university library is less of a cultural gathering place than a public library, and more of a last ditch resort when you just can’t focus on your work anywhere else. I mentioned campus libraries in the previous paragraph as quiet study spaces for dedicated reviewers, but it’s hard to say what would happen if they, like public libraries, began to incorporate ereaders for signing out material.

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