E-textbooks infiltrate the Hill: a blessing or a curse?
You felt it as a kid–the heavy backpack full of textbooks bearing down on your shoulders. As you got older and had to lug around heavier science textbooks, the strain on your back only grew worse. For centuries, this spine-bending ritual has been unavoidable, but just now we’re getting a glimpse of a future free from strained spines.
The Kindle, the iPad, and other tablet devices are beginning to serve as viable alternatives to textbooks. Some of these devices have already made their way into the hands of students here on the Hill. The Kindle and the iPad–which start at $139 and $499, respectively–are the result of recent jumps in consumer electronics miniaturization. The tech industry’s latest push into tablet territory has been dubbed the “post-PC” movement. This phrase hints at a world in which using a computer won’t involve sitting in front of it.
The e-textbook’s big sister, the CD-ROM textbook, has been around for a long time. However, it has ultimately failed to take the place of its pulp-filled cousin. Could the interactivity that the Kindle and other tablets offer be the catalyst of a successful e-textbook revolution? Will the College’s class of 2023 be pushing buttons rather than flipping pages?
Laurie Osborne, English professor and Shakespeare savant, has a Kindle and an iPad and uses them both regularly. We met in her Miller library office which overlooks downtown Waterville. Osborne loves her tablets, but she understands that they both have limits.
“E-textbooks are uncommon right now,” Osborne said. She cited the downsides of her electronics, saying, “Once the electricity stops working on this, it’s basically a doorstop.” Also, most of Osborne’s Kindle books do not contain page numbers. Instead, the Kindle’s numbering system is based on the percentage of the screen’s text to the whole. The Kindle has the ability to highlight selections from a book and save them in a separate file, which is useful for saving quotations. However, the page number issue makes properly citing Kindle books difficult. Recently, Amazon has begun adding page numbers to their books that correspond with the latest print edition.
Osborne also pointed out some of the more subtle things left out when using a Kindle. While she doesn’t want students to break their backs, she still insists that certain texts be read in paper form. “I don’t think books are going to disappear,” Osborne says. She thinks that e-textbook’s adoption at the College makes more sense in the fast-moving sciences since information in fields like neurobiology changes quickly and print textbooks can’t always keep up with the innovations.
Elise DeSimone ’12 doesn’t consider herself a technophile, but she is glued to her Amazon Kindle. DeSimone is an English major with a concentration in creative writing and uses her Kindle for all of her classes.
She originally chose the Kindle for financial reasons. DeSimone was preparing to buy textbooks for the upcoming semester when the idea to try using a Kindle suddenly struck her. The Kindle was cheaper than buying her textbooks in print. She’s never looked back since, although there have been a few bumps in the road.
DeSimone said that the learning curve was steep at first. The page number issue was a problem during class discussions, but since the Kindle allows readers to search the entire text of a book on a Kindle, she would just listen for an unusual word in the reading, search for that word, and she’d be at the correct page. Once she got used to her Kindle, her workflow changed for the better. She listens to music, takes notes and can email all her book highlights to herself in a PDF.
Back when iPods first came out, DeSimone was a skeptic and held out on buying one. What made her an early adopter for e-textbooks? “It’s so much cheaper,” she said. “All my books this semester have been for free or $0.99.” It’s also eco-friendly and convenient: “I just throw it in my bag and I have all my books [with me].”
Professor and Chair of the History Department Paul Josephson does not share DeSimone’s love for e-textbooks. “I love collecting books,” Josephson said in his office, which is furnished with a two-story bookcase with books from all time periods. Josephson is an antique book collector; clerks in Waterville bookstores know him by name.
Josephson is a self-described “neo-Luddite.” He explains that he doesn’t use the online course tool Moodle for two reasons. First, he feels that part of the joy of research and writing is trying to find and discover something. Second, he says, “my job here is not to put things on Moodle.” He said, “Professors have become secretaries [and] book orderers. We have an increasing burden that takes us away from teaching because we’re supposed to do things online now.”
Josephson points out that the hype surrounding e-textbooks closely parallels the hype surrounding previous monuments of e-vangelism, such as the invention of the phone or the computer. Both of these inventions didn’t change humanity nearly as much as people said they would at the time of their creation.
“Stories about new technology fall into one of three categories,” Josephson explains. First, there are the utopians who think that the electronic book is the best thing since penicillin. Then there are the people who think that e-books are the worst thing that has happened to society (these are the dystopians). But there is a third group of people who take a more pragmatic point of view. These people understand that most things will stay the same and, just like anything else, humans will adapt to these new technologies. “Leading publishers will always publish hard copy books,” Josephson said, “[and] the reason for that is that’s the way we ought to read.”
Like these pragmatists, when considering using this new technology we have to take both extreme viewpoints with a grain of salt. No, e-textbooks will not replace printed books completely, but they can serve as an extremely useful supplement to them. We also have to ponder new questions, such as: What is the natural form of a book? And do two students, one using a textbook and one using an e-textbook, learn the same thing?