A textbook author’s views on e-textbooks

I wasn’t able to participate in the lively Twitter #edchat discussion on e-textbooks last night due to timing issues, but I did see some of the comments after it was over and thought I’d share my 2-cents, for what it’s worth.

I have a unique perspective among high school teachers – I’m actually the author of a high school chemistry textbook (or see the publisher’s website for it) as well as a teacher, so hopefully this can add to the discussion from last night.

My Love of e-Readers
I also was an obsessed owner of the first edition of Amazon Kindle e-reader and just received the third generation this past Christmas (and am now obsessed with it).  I rarely go anywhere without the Kindle and I LOVE reading on it non-stop.

I have a smart phone and a laptop and I’ve played with tablets and they all are wonderfully useful for various purposes, but when I’m going to sit down and READ a large-ish quantity of information, I find the e-readers more comfortable.

And because it’s not a backlit screen I can read for 8 hours while traveling and in airports (not to mention can read it in broad daylight at the pool in the summer…try that with a back-lit screen!) and my eyes don’t hurt.  I can read 3 novels around 600 pages each before the battery needs to be charged.

For the purpose of reading text, it’s AMAZING!

Using an e-reader for more than just a convenient book!

It’s not just about being able to carry large novels in a small device, or having flexibility to carry many such novels in one device.  I actually purchased my first e-reader for professional reasons.

I was in the middle of my PhD program and I purchased the e-reader before I had to do my comprehensive exams (six massive essays/papers) and before I wrote the proposal for my dissertation research topic and then the dissertation itself.

Even when not in a formal educational capacity, I read science education literature profusely.  But I don’t like reading on a computer screen (like I said before – not as comfortable, convenient, back-lit, etc.) and I didn’t want to print out the literally hundreds of research articles (including figures and diagrams) I was going to read during that last half of my PhD work.

So I put them all on my e-reader and was able to comment, highlight, search, etc.  (not to mention carry them around with me and save tons of paper).

When I was ready, I simply hooked my e-reader up to my computer and downloaded a single file that had all the highlights and annotations I’d made, along with the citation for each article that the highlight or annotation was in.

I printed out that document with all the notes and quotations, literally cut it into strips for each quotation or annotation and sorted it out.

That took the place of “notecards” of the “old-school” research-paper writing experience.

And if at any point I couldn’t remember what article I’d previously read that mentioned a similar topic, I could do a word search and the e-reader would show me all the articles with that word.

And I carried all of these hundreds of articles around with me on a small device with an amazing battery life.

Do e-readers have a place in education – absolutely!!!!!

Beyond e-readers

I can see many texts being converted directly to e-reader format.  Literature, history, business, etc.  You can have links in an e-reader and they’re all built with basic web-browser functionality, so students can click a link within an e-book on an e-reader and go to more information on the internet.

However, I teach chemistry and there’s so much in that course that I’d rather move beyond the e-reader capabilities.

The power of worked examples is amazing (see a blog I wrote last week about it) and I have worked examples throughout my textbook.  But when students go to the online version, they can watch the example worked out step-by-step rather than seeing the completed on, static, in a written book.  They can pause, go back to a previous step, etc.

I also have animated diagrams and figures – they can watch the molecules as they undergo various changes and see it animated rather than static.

They can complete practice questions and get instant feedback on how they did.

In the near future I want to continue to develop the simulations that accompany the content and put those with the online text so students can experience simulations when reading.

There’s so much that I can do with an online book as compared to an e-reader that I feel that mine (and likely all math and science books) is better suited for online rather than e-reader.

Where I’d like to see my textbook go
My textbook is available through Kendall Hunt in e-format if you adopt the hardback version for your students.  And it’s come a long way – it started out as a PDF format with links to the worked examples or animations and it’s now becoming a more interactive environment as the publisher releases it’s new online technology.

But I’ve talked to teachers in schools that are going completely paperless and are not allowed to adopt physical textbooks any longer.

I’ve talked to teachers that desperately want to use my textbook with their students but they don’t have the funds to adopt a new book (even though some of them haven’t adopted in 7-10 years) and they don’t know when they’ll be able to switch.

I know that there’s a market for e-book only and I believe that’s where the publishers will be headed (if they aren’t already).

So as a teacher and a textbook author…

I see the benefit of using e-books – budget, flexibility, size/weight, access anywhere, ability to update/change, dynamic abilities.

And I want e-books in the classrooms.

But I want them to be done with a purpose and not just slapped out there by a publisher because they need to get “something” online.

And I want it to use the best technology for that purpose.  Like I said – most of my science education research is perfectly suited to my e-reader.  It’s not fancy, but it does it’s job very well, I think better than the fancier computers and tablets – read text, highlight, comments, search and then export those annotations.  But my science – especially my own chemistry textbook – needs a more dynamic environment.

So does that mean students need an e-reader and a laptop/tablet along with their phones. 
I think so.  But that’s still a much lighter weight backpack (and ultimately cheaper) than carrying around all those books year after year.

I have young kids of my own (kindergarten and second grade) and I really hope that by the time they get to high school they will not be carrying static, heavy textbooks home with them…but I hope that what they do have is the technology fit to the content rather than content fit to a particular technology!

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