Educators Divided on E-texts
Published: Thursday, April 18, 2013
Updated: Thursday, April 18, 2013 23:04
Technological advancements are a trademark of 21st-century academics and a recent fixture on the Georgetown provost’s agenda, but early feedback has raised questions over whether these changes — particularly electronic textbooks — actually offer an upgrade.
E-textbooks are already used in a few Georgetown courses, including introductory math, physics and economics classes.
According to Mike Hull, a research associate in the department of physics, nearly all of the 150 students who took Physics 101 and then Physics102 used e-textbooks this year. But Hull said the electronic versions have had a lukewarm reception at best.
“I have heard no students say that they prefer it over a paper textbook, although I have heard some students say the opposite,” Hull wrote in an email. “My impression is that if the textbook is properly linked to the online homework … then it is much more helpful than when the links are broken.”
Jordan Braunfeld (COL ’14), who used an e-textbook for Physics 101 and 102, said that he prefers paper textbooks to their electronic counterparts because the electronic textbooks are often difficult to work with.
“E-textbooks can be really tough to navigate, and often times, the text is too small for you to view the whole page at once, so you have to scroll through the same massive page if you want to be able to read,” Braunfeld said.
Braunfeld added that although the format of electronic textbooks is slightly more conducive to doing homework assignments, the linking system between homework assignments and textbook references is not always effective or informative.
At the same time, Braunfeld recognized that there are some advantages to using the electronic textbooks and believes they could become more desirable if the technology improves.
“You don’t have to carry around that big, heavy, paper book, and it’s always on your laptop,” Braunfeld said. “Also, they tend to be a lot cheaper than the paper versions.”
The sixth edition of Principles of Microeconomics, a textbook popular among economics professors, costs $85 for a 180 day e-textbook rental whereas the regular price for a physical book is $243, according to CourseSmart, a company providing digital textbooks.
Behzad Diba, a professor of economics, agreed that the price advantage was enough to justify the shift to electronic textbooks.
“I basically opted for it because it seemed like a better deal for my students,” he said.
Professors who decide to use e-textbooks may also have a new tool in their arsenal with CourseSmart Analytics, which tracks students’ progress through electronic textbooks and generates a progress report that can be seen by instructors.
Cindy Clarke, senior vice president of marketing at CourseSmart believes that Analytics, which was introduced November 2012, has the potential to dramatically improve classroom performance and be a valuable tool for instructors.
“We have already seen the disruptive benefits of analytics in industries such as e-commerce, entertainment and search where this technology has improved and enhanced the user experience to better meet their interests and preferences,” Clarke wrote in an email. “We see similar potential for analytics in higher education, where this technology … will measure student engagement and provide a means of early intervention so faculty can help at-risk students be successful in their studies.”
Analytics is being beta-tested at several schools, including the University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Buffalo and Clemson University, and is currently expected to be released in the fall.
“CourseSmart has received an overwhelming positive response from users, many of them citing the utility it provides in gauging what areas of the course might require additional focus or explanation to better engage students,” Clarke wrote. “Faculty and administrators also believe CourseSmart Analytics will provide valuable data to help them get optimum value and ROI [return on investment] for their schools’ digital implementation strategies.”
While some professors are readily jumping on board to use technology, others are more apprehensive.
Classics professor Douglas Boin (COL ’99) said schools should prioritize this technology’s focus on administrative tools, adding that grading and teaching technology should be pursued only when that foundation is in place.
“Tracking progress of reading textbooks, I think for an administrator, might be extremely useful and might generate a lot of useful data, but I’m not sure about faculty yet,” Boin said.
Technology could also allow professors to gather more data about how students are studying outside of class, government professor Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., said.
“If you’re a professor, you need to think about how students are digesting this material,” Carnes said. “They come in for 75 minutes, and you get to talk to them, but are they thinking about this material outside of class, are they talking about it? That’s where I find this kind of thing really helpful.”
Some students, however, are wary of software like CourseSmart Analytics.
“I would prefer not to have [Analytics]. That’d be a little invasive,” Braunfeld said.