Etextbooks - what's not to like?

The advantages of etextbooks seem obvious, yet student acceptance is still low. Marydee Ojala explores the latest etextbook trends and initiatives.

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The argument in favour of etextbooks should be irrefutable. Even the bulkiest book will not weigh a student down when carried about in electronic form. Publishers claim etextbooks are less expensive, which can be true for new books but problematic given students' growing preference for used textbooks and the increasing availability of rental texts.

Certainly, it's easier to update an etextbook to accommodate new information and revised versions. Pluto's not a planet? Done. The technology allows for embedding audio and video, plus the ability to manipulate graphs, charts, diagrams, pictures and other graphic materials for interactive learning. So why isn't every textbook publisher and student jumping with joy over etextbooks?

A recent study, 'Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education', January 2013, from the Book Industry Study Group  revealed that student acceptance of etextbooks is lower than expected. Its survey of US four-year university and two-year college students, now in its third year, found that only about 6% of students are using a 'core digital textbook' and 60% preferred print to digital. Although the percentage of those preferring digital to print has gone up over the last three years of the study, the numbers indicate that academia is not wildly enthusiastic about etextbooks.

The BISG study does not delve deeply into the reasons for the non-acceptance, but several possibilities immediately spring to mind. The core textbooks may not be digitised, the digital version may be inadequate (particularly if it's merely a PDF replication of the printed book), or no core textbook-in print or digitised-exists for the course material.

Intelligent etextbooks

At the Intelligent Content conference held in San Francisco in early February 2013, Robert Glushko, University of California, Berkeley adjunct full professor, School of Information Science, explained the challenges involved in writing an etextbook. He teaches an iSchool multidisciplinary course that incorporates library science, informatics, management information systems and computer science. Finding no textbook appropriate to the course and recognising that it lacked a unifying point of view, he decided to create an etextbook that would use content in an intelligent way.

MIT Press will publish his textbook, The Discipline of Organizing, early in 2013. He started using Word as his authoring system, but soon moved to XML and used O'Reilly's Atlas single-source publishing system to coordinate among his 18 co-authors. In Glushko's opinion, "You can never be too rich or have too much markup." Through markup, Glushko can identify supplemental material such as tables, figures, illustrations, sidebars, footnotes, endnotes, glossaries, bibliographic references, appendices, and case studies. These can then be intelligently included or excluded.

Glushko's intent is that his book will "radically change the reader experience." Since the course is multidisciplinary, 20% of the etextbook is supplemental material. Thus, portions of the text are tagged as suitable for individual disciplines. Library science students will see different material than computer science, informatics or MIS students. Content can be tracked as to what is read and by what type of reader. Professors at other institutions using his textbook can add their own supplemental content.

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