eTextbooks: Possibilities and Problems

Publishers are quickly moving into the etext business. Technology makes it possible to provide much more than written descriptions of course content. The authors of an exploration of etexts identify the positive aspects of these technology-enhanced texts: convenience, portability, and currency. But as these authors note, these benefits do not come without costs.

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Publishers are quickly moving into the etext business. Technology (including the acquisition of learning technology companies by big publishers) makes it possible to provide much more than written descriptions of course content. Publishers can embed the book in a learning management system and use that system to include multimedia content, interactive materials, assessments, and social networking capabilities.

The authors of an exploration of etexts identify the positive aspects of these technology-enhanced texts: convenience, portability, and currency. These resources make online course design easier and offer students a choice of learning materials, which they can use to master course concepts. New materials can be easily added, current content can be updated, and students can access the materials via various electronic devices. The convenience benefits instructors as well. PowerPoint slides, quizzes, and various grading mechanisms are available to them.

But as these authors note, these benefits do not come without costs. Publishers claim that etexts are the answer to rising textbook costs. But the authors explain that comparing the costs of etexts and print books across the board is not straightforward. The cheaper costs are made possible when universities engage in a bulk purchasing deal with publishers. However, a number of studies are documenting that students still prefer (and purchase) printed textbooks over digital ones, and there are some good reasons why.

“Publishers have a financial interest in limiting access, printing and sharing.” (p. 72) Students can only purchase individual access. They log on through the learning management system. Their access to the etext ends when the course does. This means no sharing of texts and no books to sell back at the end of the course. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported some evidence documenting that many etext development costs were being passed on to students, thereby making these book prices actually higher.

The authors identify several other potentially concerning issues. To the extent that more and more course materials are being developed by publishers, instructors start to lose control of course content. If a variety of adjuncts, TAs, and part-time faculty are teaching the same course, this may provide a degree of standardization, but control of course content is a quality issue for many faculty. They can decide not to use material supplied in the text, but students must still pay for this content. These authors wonder, if faculty play a smaller role in the creation and delivery of course content, at what point does that compromise the educational mission (and ethics) of the university? (p. 70)

Then there is a set of issues related to privacy, of students and instructors. “eText software often tracks and collects data on students. In education, this is called ‘learning analytics'; collected data is intended for use by instructors to help them understand student needs.” (p. 70) That sounds noble and good, but the tracking and data collection is without student consent. When is their privacy invaded? As one faculty member interviewed by the authors observed, “We have access to literally every click on the computer. ... We have an incredible ability to generate data ... to monitor and track what they [students] are doing, and if they aren't doing well, why.” (p. 72) The same tracking capabilities can follow how faculty are interacting with the materials as well.

In conclusion, the authors write, “The findings in this study indicate that using an etext in a course may not be as simple as swapping a print version for an electronic version of the textbook.” (p. 73) Change to an etext may have effects on “planning, developing, implementing and delivering a course.” (p. 73) They offer a series of questions for each. At the planning stage, teachers must be sure that the learning outcomes designated for the course are aligned with the outcomes of the etext and its supplementary materials. During course development, the questions have to do with the integration of instructor materials and content with those provided by the publisher. For example, if the etext comes with quizzes, will the instructor's content need to be adjusted so they can be used? At the implementation stage, there are questions related to technical support. If the students need it, where are they going to get it? And finally, as the course is delivered, instructors need to figure out if they are going to use the tracking tools. If so, to accomplish what goals? Are these data to be shared with students?

Etexts cause instructors to revisit the role of textbooks in their courses and in the learning experiences of students. They make many more things possible, but their benefits do not accrue automatically. For instructors making the move to etexts, there are a variety of important questions to ponder and decisions to make. This article provides an excellent introduction to these issues.

Reference: Bossaller, J., and Kammer, J. (2014). Faculty views on eTextbooks: A narrative study. College Teaching, 62 (2), 68-75.

Maryellen Weimer is the editor of The Teaching Professor.