eBooks and Student Learning

announce-ebooks-student-learningBy: Roberta Richards, PCC Faculty Librarian

December 13, 2012

The tide of e-ink is rising. E-readers, tablets and other mobile devices have become constant student companions. eBooks are now the hottest sellers at Amazon and other book distributors. Textbook and academic book publishers are likewise making a dramatic shift towards electronic publishing. Electronic textbooks are garnering mixed reviews from students, but the momentum towards e-reading is unwavering, and the eventual dominance of electronic course materials feels inevitable. Some college classes now require students to buy electronic textbooks as part of contract deals with publishers that bring students (somewhat) lower prices. Between the staggering costs of print textbooks, and the potential for enrichment through interactive media, e-reading will inevitably continue its march into the mainstream of college life. What does all this mean for student learning?

Pleasure e-book reading

E-reading falls into several categories. Pleasure reading is the largest segment of eBook reading, and the rise of recreational reading of eBooks is almost entirely good news for educators. Research and anecdotal evidence have shown that e-reading leads to more reading (Haq). Part of this is a result of the marketing by book distributors to promote hot new titles. Another part is the ease of access to multiple books – put that seven ounce device in your bag, and you always have a library at your fingertips, on the bus, at the coffee shop, and everywhere else. Best of all, this increase in reading seems to be true even of reluctant readers, as repeated experiments in the K-12 environment find that reluctant readers may actually enjoy reading on a device (Miranda et al). Also, both novice and veteran readers are more likely to use a dictionary when it is built into the device. While the effect of e-book sales on brick-and-mortar bookstores is worrisome, the growth of e-reading for pleasure is overall something that reading advocates can celebrate.

Academic e-books

The growth of electronic academic and reference books, the next category of e-books, is also great news for educators. Academic libraries including PCC Library are now able to provide current, high-quality titles for a fraction of the cost and space that a comparable print collection would require. PCC Library currently provides electronic access to over 80,000 academic and reference books, including titles in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, medical and technology fields, and the whole range of academic disciplines. These titles provide 24/7 access for late-night researchers, and most can be used by multiple simultaneous users and can be downloaded to a computer, tablet or e-reader. Best of all, PCC Library is able to offer access to a broad selection of titles outside the expected range of a community college library collection.


With electronic textbooks, however, the picture is more murky. The expectations that digitally-savvy Millennial students would embrace e-textbooks have been repeatedly confounded. The results of a  2011 study by researchers at the University of California, for example, are typical. While a majority of students (58%) reported that they use e-books, only 34% of undergraduates reported preferring them to prefer print formats, while 49% reported a clear preference for print books for their academic work. According to the survey report, “many undergraduate respondents commented on the difficulty they have learning, retaining, and concentrating while in front of a computer” (Kelley 15). The gap between students preferring print over electronic textbooks has been narrowing over the past few years as technology has improved, but the complaint that learning from an e-textbook takes more time than from a print text persists. One bookstore representative reports that students typically purchase e-textbooks only when print is not available and they are “desperate” for the material (Rooney).

Students’ lukewarm response to e-textbooks stems in part from the disappointing fact that cost savings over print have been modest.  Textbook prices are driven more by costs related to the creation of the content than by the physical printing and distributing of the books, according to publishers’ reports (Malek), so while e-textbooks are less expensive than a new print edition, a used print edition may still be a better bargain.  Some campuses have been negotiating deeper savings for students through bulk pricing contracts in which e-textbooks are the only option, with publishers guaranteed a certain number of sales.  Some faculty are seeking more dramatic savings for their students by using textbooks licensed through the Creative Commons.  Flat World Knowledge, for example, is a publisher of open textbooks and supplemental educational materials for the college market that uses expert authors and peer-review editing to produce online course materials available to students for free or at very low costs.  The great majority of e-textbook sales, however, still occur through traditional publishers.  One 2012 study found that students who purchased e-textbooks saved on average only $1 (DeSantis).

E-textbooks and student learning – the challenges

Costs are only one consideration when weighing the education value of e-textbooks. Educators are asking, how does the brain absorb information based on the medium in which it is presented?  Will interactive media enrich learning in a significant way? How do electronic textbooks affect student engagement? Again, the answers are murky. Vice-chancellor of Macquarie University Steve Schwartz contends that eBooks “are the format of the academic future,” primarily because “embedding audio and video within text makes the book more interactive” and “users can also personalize their learning experience” (Rooney). These potential advantages seem to come with a cost, however, as researchers are finding that concentration may be more difficult on a computer screen (Sandberg 92). For example, a study of e-textbooks carried out by James Madison University psychology instructors tracking eye movement of students using print or electronic textbooks found far more skimming by online readers. Readers of web pages tend to pick out a line to read, then skim down to pick out another link, so they are navigating the page in an E or F pattern (“E-textbook Effectiveness”). Researchers studying student use of e-textbooks recommend that electronic reading assignments be  accompanied by some sort of assessment or activity to enforce more consistent attention to text read on the computer screen.

Surprisingly, students using the electronic textbooks are also less likely to take advantage of the multimedia links, compared to students reading a print textbook accompanied by a free website. Students report that they wanted to complete the required reading and not get lost in their navigation (“E-textbook Effectiveness”).  All online readers know well the experience of following hyperlinks down a path that that leads one far from the starting point or intended destination.  Interestingly, while students are reluctant to click away from their primary reading for supplemental educational material, they may be less likely to resist the allure of Facebook, chat and other distractions while reading online. Student users of e-textbooks consistently report in engaging in a higher degree of multi-tasking (Kelley; “E-textbook Effectiveness”). This may be a primary reason why students report that learning from an e-textbook takes more time.

E-textbooks and student learning – the opportunities

On a brighter note, several studies comparing student achievement in classes divided into students using print or electronic textbooks have shown the differences to be negligible (Murrey and Perez; Sandberg; Schugar, Schugar and Penny). While students report that comprehending information through e-reading takes longer, their test scores show that this comprehension is occurring. Also, e-textbook use receives higher satisfaction marks when professors guide students through the effective use of these resources. In a review of the literature on online reading, Kate Sandberg from the University of Alaska Anchorage concludes that electronic textbooks can be used effectively, but students need assistance to improve their comprehension of text read on a computer. “[R]esearchers and practitioners need to work together to discover what are the most effective strategies for reading online… Variations of prompts, matrix notes, advanced organizers, previews, concept maps, and questions may be among the more important strategies for reading online” (97). Active reading skills such as highlighting, bookmarking and annotating are important for comprehension, regardless of format. E-textbooks typically include these features, and while current college students may be digital natives, they still need guidance to use these learning tools effectively.

For educators committed to student learning, this rising tide of e-ink provides both challenges and opportunities. One challenge is to simply recognize that no medium is best for all learners, and that some students will need extra guidance to navigate the challenges of the distractions and unfamiliar formats that e-books and e-textbooks present. Another challenge — and this is a huge one for libraries — is to navigate the fraught landscape of licensing agreements, DRM (digital rights management) technology, platform incompatibilities, publisher boycotts, and other hoary realities of electronic reading. But the educational opportunities are rich. The Reading 90 student who might plow stoically through Henrietta Lacks, not heeding the instructor’s advice to have a dictionary at hand, might truly enjoy reading the same book on a Kindle and might actually use the one-touch dictionary. The political science instructor who would never ask cash-strapped students to purchase a new work of political commentary just to read two chapters may be able to assign those chapters to read online, which students can access at no cost with their PCC ID. For the present, we have the good fortune in living in a both/and world, with both print and electronic books readily available. As always, PCC librarians are eager to work with faculty to explore the new learning opportunities in this changing reading environment.

Works cited

Library & Learning
Volume 4 Issue 4 December 2012

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