Ebooks Rewrite the Rules of Education

Article ImageBetween spending huge amounts of money on books—only to have them bought back for a fraction of the price—and lugging behemoth texts all over campus, the relationship between coeds and their textbooks is strained at best. So it makes sense that with another school year coming to a close, professors and students alike are looking for alternatives and opting to download etextbooks rather than cracking a printed one. With new social networking features designed specifically for the classroom, companies such as VitalSource are taking things one step further and are combining the interactivity of Web 2.0 with text. In the process of doing so, VitalSource managed to triple user numbers since June 2008, suggesting that etextbooks are becoming the latest learning tool in an academic’s arsenal.

With mobile ebook applications for the iPhone, such as Safari’s Bookbag, and reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle, it’s clear ebook technology is not a new idea, but it has certainly been gaining momentum. Last year, the Read an E-Book Week event, a not-for-profit week set aside to inform the public about the advantages of reading electronically, drew about 1,200 visitors, while this year the weeklong event drew about 30,000 visitors. As Jason Overby from the College of Charleston explains, new features are making the books more useful. “I’ve known about electronic books for quite a while, but I’ve never been a fan of what was available up until this point,” he says. When Overby learned of VitalSource’s Bookshelf etextbook platform, driven by Ingram Digital, he decided to try it out in one of his classes, with some strong results. As he explains, the Bookshelf platform “is actually something that is useful and goes above and beyond.  … It has a lot of value added to it.”

Bookshelf provides free software, allowing users to download, store, and manage etextbooks. With publishers such as McGraw-Hill, Elsevier, and John Wiley & Sons providing textbooks in the VitalBook format, users have the option of downloading directly from a publisher’s website or through VitalSource.

Though other websites such as CourseSmart and Ebooks.com allow users to download and view books, and even take notes, VitalSource’s Bookshelf 5.1 users have the ability to collaborate with each other. The sharing feature in VitalSource allows any Bookshelf user to subscribe to another’s notes. Instructors can make annotations directly in the text to re-emphasize important ideas for students or to help streamline lectures. According to Overby, his students are finding the etextbook helpful. “A good [75%] of the class used the ebook more [than print book],” he says. “One because they like the fact that all the digital assets are incorporated in the right spot, and the second part, they all love the idea that I could share my notes.” VitalSource also allows users to highlight sections of text and view animations and videos directly from within the book.

New collaboration features certainly play a role in the increase of etextbooks users, but it is not the only reason for the migration to digital books. Programs such as iTunes have paved the way for portable digital content, and as William Chesser, general manager and vice president of Ingram Digital Education Solutions, explains, “Students are becoming comfortable with the idea of paying for a file.” He says downloading digital content is now a “familiar way to consume content.”

Michael Schmedlen, worldwide director of education marketing for Lenovo, a company dedicated to building engineered personal computers, echoes this assertion. “People are much more comfortable with digital content,” says Schmedlen, adding, “It gives students a more individualized learning experience and speaks to them in their language.
The insertion of technology into the paradigm is disruptive but in a good way.”

While the ease of digital content use has increased the popularity of etextbooks, the current economy also plays a hand in their success. At about half the price of their print counterparts, the affordability of digital textbooks will continue to propel ebook use in the classroom. As Schmedlen explains, the “economy will accelerate the adoption of etextbooks.” Overby agrees: “Given the economic hard times, the ebook is a highly cost effective alternative to the printed book.”

Whether or not students opt for an electronic book over a print book, etextbooks will continue to make a distinct impression in the world of academia if professors are willing to take a chance. According to Chesser, the “professor is absolutely the key.” As more and more instructors utilize this new technology, the way in which students learn will be altered forever. As Schmedlen explains, etextbooks will bring new ways of teaching and consuming information, causing a “profound change in the way education is approached.”

(www.vitalsource.com; www.coursesmart.com; www.ebooks.com; www.safaribooksonline.com)