Thoughts on using open eBooks as textbooks

It’s a war of cost vs usability, cost vs reputation, cost vs instructor support, cost vs visual appeal, and cost vs basically every other consideration. Article after article floats through the news media informing us that we really don’t like eBooks (despite the fact that we buy a lot of them), and that our students don’t like them either. Yet we also know that our students don’t like to pay for the high price of traditional print textbooks, nor do they like to haul around a backpack full of heavy books everywhere they go.

The biggest complaints coming from faculty about students and textbooks look something like this:

  1. They don’t buy the books.
  2. They don’t bring the books to class.
  3. They don’t read the books.

Switching to eBooks can’t make students read, but it does take care of the first two complaints, especially if the book is a free open textbook that can be downloaded onto phones. Students do bring phones to class.

That leads us to the most common instructor complaints about students and phones:

  1. They don’t listen when they have their phones with them in class.
  2. They are too easily distracted by other apps when they use their phones for classwork.
  3. Instructors don’t know how to provide technical support for a variety of devices and shouldn’t have to take time away from teaching their content area in order to help students figure out how to use their eBooks.

Another issue many have with eBooks was addressed by the Washington Post. We skim when we read on the page. We don’t read as carefully or as deeply. We don’t follow the words in a linear pattern. Our eyes jump around, and our attention wanders. We find it more difficult to retain more than a few soundbites worth of information.

All of these concerns are real and worth considering, but when it comes to the issue of students and textbooks, I wonder if we are asking the students the right questions. I’ve seen several surveys where students were asked if they preferred print books or eBooks, and the students invariably chose print. What I haven’t seen was a survey that asked students how much was too much to pay to have a print book rather than an eBook. If the students have a choice of a free book or a $100 book, which will they prefer then?

Also, I don’t think these studies have quite taken in the hybrid nature of reading in the digital age. This is something Amazon does understand. It’s whispersync technology allows readers to switch back and forth between eBooks and audio books without losing their place. I’ve started using this service myself, and I love it much more than I thought I would.

I’ve also run into the desire to have a hybrid reading experience among my students.

This year I assigned Les Miserables. I assigned parts of it at least. This is a very long book. I’ve been teaching too long to expect students to read the whole thing. I did assign large chunks of it, though. They may not have read all 1400 pages, but they have read around 400 pages.

I gave them a choice of buying the eBook for 81 cents, buying the paperback for $6.28, reading a free copy online at Project Gutenberg (or downloading that free version), and listing to the audio version from Librivox. I was amazed by the number of students who chose to acquire the book in multiple formats.

They did not seem to like reading the book online, but many of them did choose the eBook download, and many of them seem to prefer the paperback. What I saw that was more telling to me, though, about the way students read were those who bought the paperback, downloaded the eBook, and downloaded the audio book. They platform shifted in their reading experiences in order to suit what they were doing at the time.

They listened to the audio book to get started and to learn how to pronounce character names. They could do this while doing other things. They read the eBook from devices to get caught up, read quickly, and access the book quickly from wherever they were when they had time to read. They went to the paperback to study the book, however. That’s the format they wanted to read more carefully, to mark quotes, to find page numbers for citations, and to look up questions they had about the book.

When I saw my students working in this hybrid fashion with the book, I realized that I have shifted into reading much the same way. Audio is for multitasking. Kindle is for quick reading and convenient reading. Print reading is for serious reading and studying.

So if we recognize this, and we still believe that cost is a large enough factor to drive us away from publishers and toward open eBooks, what this tells us is that we need to also offer some blended reading experiences to the students. Offer printable options. Offer audio files. Offer cross-platform downloadable file formats.

I believe that open books are the way to go, and I believe that eBook versions of open books are the most effective way to push that content out to the student, but if we are going to break away from publishers, we are going to have to also be prepared to provide our own instructional support and supplementation. Maybe this isn’t for everyone. Maybe we aren’t all there yet. To my way of thinking, though, this is what the future looks like.

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