Textbooks or E-Books?

There’s been some debate in the edu-blogosphere concerning whether or not schools should buy textbooks for students, with Stephen Downes asserting that all school textbooks should be replaced by electronic resources (which would basically allow the knowledge to be made available to students for free).


From a mobile learning point of view, one of the obvious benefits of digital texts (or remotely-accessible knowledge websites) is that they’re *so* much more portable! I remember my uni days lugging a bag full of law and math textbooks to and from classes – what a chore! In terms of the content I was reading, there’s probably not much that couldn’t be reproduced digitally. And it would have been terrific to have been able to take *all* of my textbooks around with me, rather than having to select just the texts I felt I would need the most, because I just couldn’t physically carry all my textbooks at once.

I can definitely see the value of electronic, free-for-education resources, but there’s just a few bits of the paradigm missing for me:

  1. Annotating/Note Taking. One of the ways I use textbooks is to scribble notes in the margins, highlight paragraphs of particular value, and insert my own notes between the pages to supplement the textbooks content: for example, if the teacher provides a better explanation of a concept covered by the textbook, it is useful to insert the “missing page(s)” myself. How could this kind of learning activity be replicated in an electronic textbook or on a website? How do I highlight paragraph 10 of a webpage for later reference so that I can flick through my notes and visually notice that there’s something relevant there that I should remember, as I can do with the pages of a text book?
  2. Access to Online Content. A book is a very mobile repository of knowledge. Once I’ve bought it, I can take it anywhere, and I can access the information in the textbook for free. This is not necessarily so for an online textbook: if I need to remotely access some content and I’m not able to use a free campus wireless service (e.g. on the bus), my only connection options are via a commercial mobile operator, which can cost plenty of money. In some situations, I may not be able to access an online resource at all (e.g. in a rural or regional setting). Putting the knowledge on a website may make it “free,” but is access to that resource going to be free (and easily available)?
  3. Power. A textbook needs no power source, and it can therefore be studied at length in situations where mobile devices needed to access the same knowledge with the convenience of a textbook may be inadequate. There are now “e-ink” e-book readers which have much better power cunsumption that laptops or PDAs, but these lack wireless and internet capability and are only monochrome (though colour versions are being developed). A student’s day may involve an hour-long bus or train ride to school or college; an 8-hour day of college; and another hour-long ride home: realistically (conservatively, even), 10 hours of usage of one or more textbooks would be expected in a day without an opportunity to recharge an electronic device. If we replace textbooks with e-books or websites, how can we ensure students have power to access theor e-texts all day long?

Just some of my thoughts… if we can overcome some of these barriers, I think replacing textbooks with e-books may well become all the more feasible. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Textbooks or E-Books?

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  2. I couldn’t agree more with the disadvantages listed in this article- I think that virtual books would be much less convenient for studying purposes than actual textbooks. My best comprehension comes from highlighting and marking up my books, not to mention that staring at a computer screen for even longer than I already have to does NOT sound appealing. Recently I’ve started RENTING my books from bookrenter.com, which I couldn’t be more satisfied with. By renting my books, I save half off the bookstore price, plus I don’t have to worry about selling back and receiving nothing in return when the term ends. I’ve always been worried that my books won’t arrive in time when I order them online, but bookrenter.com shipped them quickly in time for class. And the best part about it was that I still got to highlight key points with an erasable highlighter that is also sold on the site!

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