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Reading in the Dark Ages

It’s 2011 already. What’s the holdup with e-readers designed for the needs of academia?

I was on the subway, coming home from an appointment in Manhattan (I live in Brooklyn), when I noticed the young woman next to me reading through a sheaf of stapled paper.

Out of the corner of my eye, I looked more closely at her reading matter. (You become quite adept at “eavesreading” after a quarter-century of riding the subway.) What I saw amazed, amused, and annoyed me.

The packet the young woman held was a compilation of different essays on child development and learning (Erikson, Piaget, and the like). Judging from its cover page, I could tell the woman was a graduate student in education. This was clearly her child-development course “text.”

My jaw dropped. When I was a grad student in the early ’80s teaching freshman composition, I put together “textbooks” like this—essays from different authors published in different books, copied and collated by the local copy center where students would pick up their course packs.

Call me naive, but I am stunned—and peeved—that in 2011 college classes still issue photocopied course packs.

I’m going to assume that her professor obtained copyright clearance for reproducing these essays. (Which is more than I can say for my colleagues and me in 1983, when we assured ourselves that we were not violating any copyrights because we were using the texts for “educational purposes.” University counsel must have been absent for that faculty meeting.) But why couldn’t the instructor have done an electronic compilation through the school LMS, or Google Books, or Open Library? I’m sure that this young woman would have preferred to have these articles on her iPhone rather than in a stapled mass, whose over-copied, blurry text was certainly no testament to the unbeatable resolution of the printed page.

Lest anyone mistake me for an anti-print person, let me be clear that I am a paper-trained reader and I love physical books. (N.B.: I’m writing this essay for a print magazine.) I don’t even own an e-reader or (gasp) an iPad.

But when it comes to college reading, I can’t help but want to scream: Please, please, let’s get a move on to electronic texts! Students spend a scandalous amount of money on bloated, overweight textbooks that are, most times, of no further use after the course is finished.

I’m not suggesting that reading a PDF is a more satisfactory experience than reading a textbook. And, as we have reported in the pages of this magazine, academic reading is not the same as reading for pleasure—the electronic readers out there (even the iPad) are still not optimized for reading for learning.

What is holding us up? As my dad would say, we can put a man on the moon, yet we can’t make an e-reader that students can skim, dog-ear, and notate? Please.

Don't miss John K. Waters’ excellent article on where the e-textbook is headed in our March issue.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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