Students Give E-Textbooks Failing Grade

In 2009 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an initiative to replace printed textbooks with digital versions.  His motives were purely financial, and who could blame him? His state’s economy was in the toilet, and it still is. But before going all in on e-textbooks The Terminator wanted to get some feedback from end users.

He’s getting it in spades but it’s not what he wants to hear. Students around the nation are flunking the format. They want their paper books back. It seems that e-readers are okay for reading, but textbooks are seldom read immersively like novels, and so far the e-books can’t match the functionality of good old paper. And even when it comes to reading for pleasure, gadgets like the Kindle DX tablet did not fetch high grades.

The first school to check in was the University of Wisconsin after experimenting with the DX for a history course.  As we reported last January, “Many said in response to questions of the baseline survey that they preferred printed books for sustained and serious reading…Within a few weeks after the start of the [first] class several students had opted to buy paper copies of the books for some of the readings…They immediately perceived the cumbersome note-taking features and the lack of reliable pagination… The experimental project has uncovered faults so fundamental that this particular device will never be deployed for mass use by UW–Madison students.” (See Not So Fast, Guv! Wisconsin Students Not Ready to Terminate Paper Books.)

Results are now coming in on the DX from such schools as University of Washington, University of Virginia, Princeton and Reed College, a small campus in Oregon.  Typical were these observations by some students who “complained they couldn’t scribble notes in the margins, easily highlight passages or fully appreciate color charts and graphics,” writes Seattle Times business reporter Amy Martinez. One graduate student commented that “You don’t read textbooks in the same linear way as a novel. You have to flip back and forth between pages, and the Kindle is too slow for that. Also, the bookmarking function is buggy.”

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps was less generous. She simply declared the DX “a dud.”

Here’s one anecdote reported by Martinez:

“Wary of lugging a backpack full of textbooks on the University of Washington campus, Franzi Roesner couldn’t wait to get her hands on a new, lightweight e-reader from Amazon.com. Soon after receiving a Kindle DX, however, something unexpected happened. Roesner began to miss thumbing through the pages of a printed textbook for the answer to a homework question. She felt relieved several months later when required reading for one of her classes was unavailable on the Kindle, freeing her to use a regular textbook.”

Educators are more sanguine about Apple’s iPad, but it may just be that it’s the screen medium itself, not the device, that turns students off.

Martinez’s coverage of the story can be read here.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the Seattle Times.

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One Response to Students Give E-Textbooks Failing Grade

  1. David Kendrick, CPA says:

    I am currently wrapping up my Masters of Science, Taxation.

    I strongly feel that I gain greater knowledge , have greater retention and actually enjoy learning when I am in a class room environment as opposed to online. I also have found that hard-copy textbooks are more user friendly, easier to flip through bookmark etc..

    I spend too much time on the computer for work and study as it is!!

    As a bonus, those books look great on my bookshelf !

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