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Textbook Controversy




Electronic or paper?  This was the question that some students were asked for the first time when purchasing textbooks at our Hawks Bookstore this semester.  When the faculty first learned of this choice during flex week, SCC’s spring 2010 semester was off to a controversial start.  Upon hearing that our students were not only offered the choice between buying textbooks in digital or paper format but that they also “wanted” digital versus paper books, many across campus were faced with the need to take a pedagogical stance on the virtue, or lack thereof, of digital books and classroom instruction.  As a result, a few of us on the Technology Committee polled people in various areas and disciplines as well as students on campus in an effort to discover how this topic is viewed.

What exactly is an electronic or digital book (eBook)?  Well, according to Scott James, there are three types of eBooks.  First, we have media based books, which are usually downloaded to computers via flash drives or CDs.  Next, there are eBooks that are only accessible on the Internet; this format of eBook requires that the reader read the texts through an Internet browser.  Finally, there are tablet eBooks that work more like a “reader.”  This form implements a certain hardware tool such as Kindle or the new i-Pad.

When asked why the bookstore decided to offer students eBooks this semester, Bonnie Perry provided the following list—“Top Ten Reasons to Buy Digital Books.”

  1. On the norm, the savings on purchasing a digital textbook versus a new textbook is approximately 50%.   As an example:  A $100 new book equals a $75 used book.  The digital version is $50.
  2. You can print and highlight pages on the digital version.
  3. The digital version can be viewed from any location as long as it has not been downloaded.
  4. The digital textbook does not have to be downloaded to have full use of the textbook.
  5. The digital form can be read using Adobe reader, so information can be found faster.  This is especially good when professors do not use the entire book. 
  6. The digital form of the book has the same refund period (as long as it has not been downloaded) as the traditional book.
  7. The digital book is accessed through a code, so there is no physical version of the book to carry around or get damaged.
  8. Digital books are not bought back; however, the price point is lower than the buyback value to the student.  This means that the student does not have to worry about getting the book back to the store in time for buyback.
  9. No one can steal a digital book.
  10. Digital Books are eco-friendly; no trees were killed in making your student’s book.

 In addition to the list, Bonnie also provided the following justification for digital books:

“The only issues that I could see faculty members considering would be that some professors do not allow laptop computers in their classes.  They have shared with me that they are concerned that students may go on Web sites like Facebook and MySpace.  The way that I addressed that statement is that, unfortunately, students have many ways of taking digital media into the classroom without the professor’s knowledge.   With a laptop, it is more obvious when students are in sites that should not be accessed during classroom time. 

There are many professors who make [the visiting Web sites during class time] issue the responsibility of the student.  I have talked to a few that tell me that their students already access those sites during class time, but they are told how it will affect their grades if they do not budget their time wisely. 

The other issue that one person was concerned about was the academic freedom of the professor.  Having a digital form of the book does not change the professor’s choice in their teaching materials; it only offers an alternative format to the students at a much-reduced price. 

It is important for everyone to note that digital books are being sold through most other colleges, many Web sites and some independent bookstores.  Students are purchasing digital media from many other sources besides our bookstore.  Our goal is to ensure that the campus benefits from the sale rather than an outside entity.”

In addition to the perspective of those in the bookstore, our SCC librarians have provided their viewpoint on the eBook topic.  Reporting for the library faculty and staff, Alice Ho offers the following:

“The SCC Library has over 14,000 eBooks. Access is available 24/7 at the library and remotely from home. The eBooks have advanced search capabilities that allow students to perform searches across hundreds of books or within a specific book. In addition, students can take notes and copy and/or paste important text. According to Library statistics, eBooks on business, management, medicine and literature are quite popular.

The Library also offers over 300 online reference books through the Gale Virtual Reference Center. Students can access these resources anytime, anywhere. These eBooks are downloadable and audible: you can listen to them or download them to your computer or iPod.

The eBooks expand the Library collection and provide convenient ways for students to access information. They are valuable resources especially during this tough economic time.”  


Next, Jane Francis provides a succinct account of the Math Department’s point of view:


“Pros of eBooks:  Generally cheaper.  Can be accessed anywhere with a computer.  Students do not have to carry a heavy book; they can just print out the pages they need.  Instructor can assign the homework online, which will only show the pages needed for that section of homework; they can upload it to a Kindle.


Cons of eBooks:  May need extra software.  Some find it hard to read on a screen.  Students aren’t bringing the text to class in case of in-class work.  Some are not cheaper than the actual text.  The eBook idea might be okay for the non-transfer classes and some transfer classes like Math 105 or Math 219.”


Upon hearing that our students “wanted” and were requesting eBooks at the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Division Meeting during Flex Week, I took it upon myself to do a few informal polls.  First, I polled my colleagues in the English Department.  Although my colleagues and I recognize that eBooks exhibit a number of positive attributes overall, for our purposes in the classroom, the negative attributes of eBooks, particularly the media type eBooks our bookstore offers, outweigh the positives. 


As a reminder, number seven of Bonnie’s “Top Ten Reasons. . .” states, “The digital book is accessed through a code, so there is no physical version of the book to carry around or get damaged.”  For the English Department, “ay, there’s the rub” (Ham. III.i.72).  Much of the classroom instruction and collaboration that transpires in every level of our English classes depends largely upon the textbook.  Many of us require students to have textbooks with them for every class, for we refer to our textbooks for a number of instructional reasons.  We may use the text as a basis for group and writing activities.  Furthermore, we use direct passages from the text as discussion starters, and often, we require students to support their assertions and interpretations in discussion and in writing with direct quotes from the text.  As one can see, in order for the sort of collaborative environment that many of us strive to achieve in our classrooms, the textbook is an integral part of enabling the students to more actively participate in their own learning.


Referring back to Bonnie’s “Top Ten Reasons. . .,” number two states, “You can print and highlight pages on the digital version.”  Many of us in the English Department find that it is already difficult to ensure that students bring their textbooks to class as it is, and for those of us who use Blackboard and ask students to print documents and bring them to class, we find that there is not a huge student success rate with the follow through of that task.  Also, if we ask students to bring printed pages from the digital book, doesn’t that at least partially negate number ten of the top ten list that states, “Digital Books are eco-friendly; no trees were killed in making your student’s book”?


If you recall, there are at least three types of eBooks.  Personally, it seems to me that the tablet form of eBooks is a happy medium for the following reasons: With the tablet eBook format, a student has the text with annotation capabilities, and there is no worry that the student is surfing the Internet, for tablets like the Kindle do not have Internet capabilities.  Likewise, this version of the eBook does fulfill the “eco-friendly” aspect of eBooks since there would be no need to print pages. When considering convenience, it seems that the Kindle could prove convenient as all of a student’s textbooks (if accessible) could feasibly be loaded on it.


Even so, there is a question as to whether or not the Kindle version is as economical as the media form the bookstore mentions.  A quick look at reveals that the Kindle costs $259.  Although there are a large number of texts that can be loaded onto the Kindle for free, other texts cost additional dollars, and it’s unclear if textbooks are available for the Kindle.  Still, with the possibility of textbook accessibility and lower costs, it does seem that over time, the Kindle could be the more economic choice.


Personal preference is an important aspect of the eBook versus paper book conversation, and it has been said that students prefer eBooks, which brings me to the second of my informal polls. During my “Getting to Know You. . .” activity on the second day of class, I asked the 30-32 students in each of my four English 101 classes the following question: “Would you rather read/use an eBook textbook, or would you rather read/use a paper textbook?”  To be honest, I was rather surprised by the students’ responses as well as by the reasons for their responses.


Overall, 87% of my students prefer paper books to eBooks for a number of reasons.  Some students fear the possible eye damage that might result from extensive screen viewing.  A number of students, and these aren't my literature students, still like the tactile nature of reading a book, which includes actually feeling the pages as one turns them.  They like the idea of being able to visually see the number of pages read as well as those still left to read; it makes them feel more accomplished upon completion.  Further, the paper book supporting students found that they tend to retain more information from a paper book than from an eBook.  Also, many find it more convenient—batteries never run out, and electricity is never an issue—one can read by candlelight with or without electricity.  There were also comments made about the enhanced ease of annotation in a paper book.


Conversely, 13% of my students preferred eBooks to paper books.  Many of the student responses in support of eBooks echoed those in Bonnie’s “Top Ten Reasons. . ..”  Decreased cost was the number one reason each student gave.  Next was convenience with the mention of lighter backpacks/bags and ease of transport and access.  Another reason was simply preference: Some students enjoy watching TV shows and films on their computer, playing video games on their computer, listening to music on their computer, and conversing with friends on their computer, so it logically follows, that for them, they also prefer reading on their computer.  A few students candidly agreed with number five of Bonnie’s “Top Ten Reasons. . .,” which mentions, “The digital form can be read using Adobe reader, so information can be found faster.”  One student, in particular, mentioned how instead of reading complete assignments, she uses this search function to find the necessary terms for an assignment/discussion rather than reading the entire section/assigned reading.  The other eBook supporting students quickly commended that additional benefit. 


On a more personal note, even though I have used my iPhone to read a book or two while traveling, I agree with my paper book supporting students and their reasons for preferring paper books to eBooks.  I recognize the usefulness of eBooks, but for me, in my classrooms, with my pedagogical philosophy and goals, I vote for paper books and can compromise with Kindle eBooks, but the straight digital textbook is not a viable option—at least not at this time.  I do, however, reserve the right to change my mind, especially as the technology associated with eBooks is bound to improve with time. 


Wherever your personal preferences lie—with paper books or eBooks—we, on the Technology Committee, would like you to consider the following: If contemplating the adoption of eBooks, please be sure to ask your publishers about their compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and accessibility for Americans with disabilities—especially for your mathematic textbooks.  For now, Scott James encourages faculty to speak with Pearson, for Pearson has accessible electronic math texts for K-12 and is actively looking into making college-level eBooks also accessible to Americans with disabilities.


If you would like to express your personal perspective on this issue, please click here to take a poll, and we’ll share the results in our next newsletter


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