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Are e-Books Ready for the Classroom?

Electronic books, or e-books, are portable computer devices about the size of a paperback but slightly heftier, designed for the convenient storage and display of reading material. E-books offer many features that make them suitable for these tasks, such as lightweight design, ease of use, the ability to store large amounts of material, and high-quality backlit screens for comfortable viewing in any lighting situation. E-books offer great promise as an emerging educational technology, but to date this potential remains largely untapped.

e-Books: Dream versus Reality

For years, rosy scenarios depicted e-books gaining widespread acceptance in the classroom. One could imagine a student leaving the campus bookstore on the first day of school with an entire semester's worth of course texts downloaded into a handheld e-book. At the end of the semester, the student could archive all the material onto a personal computer, building a permanent library from every course he or she has taken.

Is the demise of the textbook imminent? Will the printed text be relegated to the scrap heap of outdated education technologies, along with the slide rule and the mimeograph machine?

Perhaps eventually. For now, however, the role of the printed textbook, the single most widely used tool in the history of education, remains secure. What factors are preventing the long-predicted, widespread use of e-books from becoming reality?

To explore this question, I conducted a pilot study in which e-books were loaned to college students enrolled in a one- semester introductory biology course for non-majors at Fordham College at Lincoln Center during the 1999-2000 academic year. The 22 participants volunteered to use e-books as their sole source of reading material for the course. Participants filled out anonymous questionnaires designed to determine satisfaction with the experience, how reading habits changed between electronic and print formats, and the advantages and disadvantages of using the e-book as a learning tool. Although the study was small, several trends were apparent that clarify the benefits and pitfalls of e-books as teaching and learning tools.

Why Use an e-Book?
Advantages of the Format

Compared to standard media, e-books offer the potential of alleviating the most significant disadvantage of instructional technologies such as CD-ROMs and Web sites: lack of portability. Common problems such as access to electrical power, the difficulty of viewing laptop LCD screens, busy signals, and other Internet traffic delays can frustrate student users, particularly commuting students who wish to use their travel time in productive study.

By contrast, an e-book battery typically lasts more than 24 hours, active-matrix LCD screens allow for comfortable viewing in any lighting situation, from bright sunshine to total darkness, and connection to a computer is required only for one-time downloading of material. Every e-book user in my poll reported using the e-book while traveling, and 75 percent of respondents had used it in more places than they would a standard textbook.

On e-books, students can emulate most of a standard text's features, such as underlining, bookmarking, writing in the margins (although the current writing interface needs improvement), and looking up words in a glossary. Furthermore, e-books offer many extras like large storage capacity, light weight, hyperlinking, adjustable fonts, search capabilities, and customizable content. Future e-books may offer such multimedia capabilities as animation, video, audio, and text-to-voice pronunciation.

Learning curves associated with new technologies often act as serious impediments to their widespread implementation, but e-books are single-use, simply designed devices. In fact, a majority of the students (86 percent) spent less than 30 minutes learning how to set up and use their e-books.

Disadvantages of the Format

In past years, what prevented e-books from attaining a critical mass of student users was easy to identify: The hardware was not up to speed. In particular, the LCD screens were small, had insufficient resolution, and were black-and-white. The model used in my study, the Rocket eBook, had a monochrome monitor with a modest resolution of 320x480 pixels and a maximum image size of 316 pixels, although scrolling accommodated larger sizes.

Black-and-white hardware might be appropriate for subjects that rely on text-only presentations or simple graphics. Biology, however, requires detailed color diagrams to convey important concepts. Among my students, the most frequently cited disadvantage of using e-books was poor graphics. I was forced to supplement the e-book with a Web site that showed full-color versions of important diagrams.

Color screens seem to be necessary if e-books are to gain widespread usage across the curriculum. But today's prices are prohibitive to many students—for example, the color RCA REB 1200 retails for $699. Eighty-four percent of my students who had used an e-book for one semester were willing to spend $199 for their model, in addition to any e-textbook costs, if all of their courses offered an e-book option that would allow them to take advantage of their investment. I doubt that most students would be willing or able to spend more than three times that much for a color model.

Aside from the cost issue, the inadequate hardware situation of past years has been solved. What is lagging now is the software: the e-book reading content. There are currently four content sources.

First, some publishers offer e-book versions of standard books. However, relying on commercial publishers is not a good option for two reasons: E-book versions are typically sold at about 10 percent off the retail price, making them generally more expensive than discounted printed versions, and the number of e-book titles available is tiny compared to printed books.

A second commercial resource is e-newsstands that sell periodicals such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more technical publications.

Two other sources of e-reading material are non-commercial. Public-domain Web sites can be downloaded into an e-book, and provide a rich source of materials for subjects such as classic literature. Finally, instructor-written materials, when available, can easily be converted to e-book format. For my study, I was able to rely solely on self-written materials previously developed in other formats, allowing me to avoid having to find acceptable outside e-reading sources.

Future Prospects for e-Books

I can draw two major conclusions from my preliminary experiment with e-books in the biology classroom. First, students found e-books easy to use and beneficial. Every poll respondent recommended e-books, and all but one wanted other courses to offer an e-book option. Second, e-book problems that arose seem solvable in the near future. For example, the poor quality of visuals can be improved by the use of more recent hardware. If e-books are to gain a foothold as a standard educational tool, though, prices for color models will have to drop. Other creative options, like leases and rentals, might also help. The biggest hurdle to the widespread use of e-books in the classroom is the lack of available e-titles from textbook publishers. A chicken-and-egg paradox is evident: Publishers hesitate to introduce more titles until e-books are widely used, but widespread use remains unlikely with so few titles available. For now, courses that utilize public content, whether in the public domain or instructor-written, can make up for insufficient commercial publications. Once this final software piece of the e-book puzzle is in place, college students may enjoy a future where versatile and convenient e-reading devices replace the cumbersome burden of texts that currently weigh down their backpacks.

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