Putting e-Texts to the Test

Twice a week this semester, Arkee Hodges has given a 15-minute quiz to his class on race and ethnicity in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The first 10 minutes were like any other quiz that students might take in any class on any campus. The last five minutes were a little different. They were open-book — and the book was on a Kindle e-reader.

Scrolling through their electronic textbooks rather than turning pages of bound paper, underscoring passages with a little button rather than highlighting them with a marker, the John Jay students were CUNY pioneers and participants in a grand experiment. They and their professor are among students and faculty at eight colleges whose experiences will help determine whether electronic textbooks and other digital course content might one day become commonplace, if not standard, across the University’s 23 campuses.

Like universities nationwide, CUNY and its students have contended for several years with steadily rising textbook prices, an issue so acute that it led to the formation of a Textbook Savings Committee. Led by Brian Cohen, associate vice chancellor and the University’s chief of information technology, the committee took a broad approach. “We are keenly aware of how much textbooks cost CUNY students,” says Cohen. “This committee was established to develop multiple solutions to reduce this burden.”

Among other things, the committee developed a “How to Save Money on Textbooks” flyer for students that was put online and in orientation packages. It included strategies for finding the best prices on new and used books.

Then the committee turned its attention to the electronic alternative. Earlier this year, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Alexandra W. Logue solicited proposals from faculty who would use electronic textbooks or other digital material in their courses and report the results. Of the 31 received, proposals from 11 faculty members or groups were awarded, with each receiving a grant of up to $10,000, with most of the award covering the digital content or eBook used by the students.KINDLEam02

Whether a transition to e-textbooks would actually save students money is the first question. Electronic, downloadable versions of popular novels and general nonfiction books are generally less expensive than copies that are printed and bound. But the pricing picture for e-textbooks is far less clear.

The CUNY Textbook Savings Committee started its exploration in 2009 by soliciting information from the leading textbook publishers. George Otte, University director of academic technology and co-chair of the committee, says it was clear from the information that came back that the industry itself is tentative about the e-textbook market.

One issue is the number and varying capabilities of devices. Their compatibility with textbook content can also vary widely. For instance, Kindle is the leading e-reader, but it doesn’t display color, limiting its use with textbooks that rely on graphics. Publishers also paid close attention to Amazon’s test of a new academic version of Kindle, called the DX, at seven universities during the 2009-2010 academic year. Students said they saved money on textbooks and liked the device’s portability and week-long battery life, but many reported that its highlighting and note-taking functions were awkward and hampered studying.

Because of the many issues and variables, the publishers have yet to establish a consistent price structure. And that makes it difficult to assess whether, and how much, e-books would ease the textbook burden on students. “There’s no one-size-fits-all,” Otte says. “We’re very much in the sorting-out period.”

But cost is only part of the equation. What the committee wants to know from the experiences of the grant recipients is what impact e-books — and other digital course content — might have on the teaching and learning experience. Do students read more or less, and more or less effectively, on e-books? Can the use of features such as interactive material enhance learning? Can they help instructors use course content they create themselves? The answers will likely vary according to what is being taught — as well as who is being taught and by whom. Thus, the grants to CUNY faculty cover a variety of academic disciplines and content. At Borough of Manhattan Community College, math students this semester used an e-textbook that came with “bundled” course content. Students in an art history survey course at Queens College, meanwhile, viewed classic paintings through electronic versions of Janson’s History of Art.

CUNY’s collective assessment may be particularly informed by the experience of several early adopters of electronic course content at John Jay College. In 2009, Meghan Duffy, director of the college’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education for similar research. The two-year grant included the purchase of 60 Kindles — including the ones Arkee Hodges’s students use on their open-Kindle quizzes. In one part of her study, professors last spring taught two sections of the same course and used the electronic textbooks in one and the printed version in the other. Thus far, Duffy says, it seems that students are reading faster — and reading more — with the e-reader than with printed textbooks. “By and large, they prefer the e-reader,” she said.

But there are drawbacks — one in particular, Hodges has found. While his students do report reading faster, and they love the idea of carrying several heavy books on a thin, light electronic device, the Kindle has a fatal flaw for textbooks: Because users can adjust text size, Kindle books don’t have page numbers. “How can students make citations in a paper if they can’t cite page numbers?” Hodges asks.

That’s the sort of issue that has led both staff and faculty to emphasize that their exploration is not focused on the pros and cons and idiosyncrasies of specific devices. Technology and products are constantly developing. It’s the big picture they are trying to assess: e-book content and whether it is economical and effective enough to end the centuries-long reign of the textbook.

For details on the 11 funded CUNY e-reader projects, go to www.search.cuny.edu and enter “ebookproject.”