Giving students what they want whether they want it or not

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that one study shows that in some cases e-textbooks are saving students the grand total of one greenback per course. Figuring in the costs of hardware, tech support, infrastructure, and etcetera that are adding immensely to the cost of tuition anyway—not to mention the disappearance of a secondary market where they can resell their textbooks–I really wonder whether, so far, e-textbooks might not be costing students money in the short run. Until there is a much larger economy of scale I suspect that cost savings will remain negligible. Even then, it’s not clear. Though general consumption of e-books has skyrocketed in relative terms over the past couple of years, the cost of e-books has actually crept upward such that the difference between the cost of an e-book and the cost of a paperback on Amazon is small, and clearly costs more than a good used paperback available easily through Amazon’s resellers or through good used bookstores like my favorite, Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg.

In some ways I’m even more interested in the practical and usability costs that students are experiencing. According to the Chronicle, many students struggled to know how to use the technology effectively and lacked the basic computing skills necessary. Professors were called upon to be IT instructors. This flies in the face of our ideological conviction that young people naturally adapt to technology in a way their professors do not. I don’t have a grasp of the details here, but it surely seems that some professors are being required to spend time away from their disciplines in order to get students up to speed on how to use the technology.

The electronic rental model caused a few other headaches for students and professors at the college, according to the study. Some students struggled to use the e-textbooks, thanks to disparities in basic computing skills. Those problems led some professors to spend class time conducting their own in-class tutorials, and even afterward a few said it was unclear who should be providing continuing technical instruction—faculty, campus IT staff, or representatives from the publishers.

And, of course, predictably, there are massive infrastructure issues involved with swift changes to e-books as the basic tool of the university.

Even students who adapted to the technology quickly sometimes struggled to open up the digital course materials during lectures. Wireless networks in classrooms where several students were using e-textbooks at once sometimes became overwhelmed, making access to publishers’ sites inconsistent.

I should probably say that this is not a screed against technology or e-books. I do almost all my own occasional reading on my iPad, and I do read e-books, though I continue to prefer the old codex for anything over about 20 pages long. I do think, though, that we ought to proceed cautiously with the notion that technology is the salvation for better learning at a lower cost. Once we add in the infrastructure necessary to make sure students can use the technology effectively—hardware, software, sufficient bandwidth, tech support and training for students and teachers on a permanent and consistent basis (really 24 hours a day given the way education is heading)–its unclear that students will have really saved anything, because to be sure it will be the students or their parents who are paying for it.

I think, to be frank, that there is a certain inevitability about this transformation to which we will all have to adapt and are already adapting. But we really ought to justify that transformation on the basis of whether students are learning more or not rather than on costs savings that I don’t think are really happening. I just think we need to get clearer on the advantages or e-books to students learning, if they are there, before we give students even more of what they want whether they want it or not.

6 thoughts on “Giving students what they want whether they want it or not

  1. Markus

    It is interesting to note that the cost of “regular” books is skyrocketing as opposed to their e-versions. Recently, I had an option of buying a math textbook, but only a new one, since its used copies were not available. The cost, should I have bought it, was around $240; the e-version was about $100. The e-version was a way to go, most of you would say. However, laptops or e-readers are not allowed in a setting of a regular math classroom. This is a catch 22 situation, which I could not figure out. What worries me is that our college administrations is laggiing behind with their allowing “modern” technologies to enter our classrooms.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      The economics of it is complicated beyond my ken. Check out amazons store for the top books of 2011. What you will find in most cases is that the kindle version is as or more expensive than the paperback and in some cases as or more expensive than the hardcover. Factor in the fact that you must buy a kindle in the first place and that you can’t resell your used ebook and recoup half or more of your expenditures, and you arrive at the conclusion that ebooks make no economic sense, especially on a student budget. Textbooks are another matter, but even here the chronicle study suggests they aren’t saving students much of anything right now.

      Peter Kerry Powers Dean of the School of the Humanities Box 3009 Messiah College Grantham, PA 17027

      717-766-2511, ext. 7376

  2. carmenmccain

    Hmmm… thinking of the way I read and study, I would have a very hard time with a textbook as an e-book. When I am on the computer, I am in internet mode. It is hard for me to concentrate for more than a few pages without wanting to switch and check email, or check facebook or whatever. Sitting down with a (hardcopy) book is a relief from that. While younger students may not be as tactile with books as my generation was, I also need to be able to underline and make notes in the margins of books I am studying. Plus, I could rarely afford brand new books. Most of my textbooks were used.

    While I was and am excited about the accessibility e-books (especially those free ones like the kind you can find on project gutenburg), especially in places where it has been harder to find books, as well as the travelability of an e-book, I am troubled by a publishing move that would phase out “real” books.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Joseph Huffman just delivered a lecture arguing that the material organization of the codex lends itself better to the kinds of intensive organic reading we might associate with studying in the humanities, the kind of attention associated with discovering the structural integrity of the whole object. I’m not entirely convinced of this since I think part of the issue is what we take to be the object of attention in the first place. Why, after all, is the book the object of our attention rather than discourse or culture or something else–which, we might say, the internet, the e-book,etcetera, lend themselves to more effectively. Still, I think its worth asking what kinds of reading are enabled by certain material forms and what kinds are impeded.

  3. Pingback: Living in an e-plus world: Students now prefer digital texts when given a choice | Read, Write, Now

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