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Students to e-textbooks: no thanks (roughtype.com)
40 points by leephillips 1553 days ago | hide | past | web | 46 comments | favorite



I've personally found that reading technical/scientific books on an ebook reader like the Kindle is not a joy. The main problem, for me, is very much the linearity. It's actually easier to navigate paper than the dominant ebook UI paradigms, which are very well suited to reading novels, but not much else.

If this is just a product of which software I'm using, please tell me, I'd love to use better software.

(The iPad with its big screen does work for scientific papers though, because those are usually short and rendered as a PDF that benefits from being able to see the entire page on the screen. But the reader software I've tried there is also very much linear.)


You are correct.

I love my kindle fire. I have in the past six months read all of the G.R.R. Martin books. I have also read x < 10 non-fiction books. Took notes on all of them. Perfect for this sort of thing.

Programming and technical books are fucking terrible for this. The interface, ability to search, and translation into the real world are just not interactive enough.

They just don't match the ability to flip through the pages like in the physical world.


I read technical stuff on an iPad 4 and a Kindle DX. Both work really well (also, I use a second 24" monitor on a repositionable arm to view stuff -- OR's Safari is particularly bad on anything but a desktop computer.)


Do you study on them? I tend to look back and forth a lot when studying and books are unbeatable in this regard. You can use your fingers as bookmarks while looking at the contents. Compared to e-readers or browsing this is unbeatable (although browsing tries to get there).

You get a real sense of where the content is by the thickness of the papers. You don't have that with a browser.


I do flip back sometimes, but generally make notes separately rather than using the original pages for reference.


I find the ability to highlight sentences and paragraphs a big boost to my studying efficiency. But highlighting on books, make one mistake and you're screwed.


Sounds like you're redacting, not highlighting.


I use this amazing invention for highlighting things in my books, it also has a fantastic undo function. It called a pencil and costs pennies. You should try it sometime.


A pencil eraser is pretty far from fantastic when erasing from a book.


My take away from this article, contrary to the conclusions of the author and "scholars" is _the software used must suck_. There is no reason the software can't be something you "boot" into and disallows the so-called distractions, if that is really an issue. There is no reason a e-book can't be just as easily marked up and bookmarked (with adequate "flare") for revisiting. Not to mention all the benefits of a digital book not compared in the article (eg. Search).

Paper textbooks permit students to have unlimited access to information at any time during a course as well as after the course ends. Laughable. I have no idea what hardware or software these students are being forced to use, but given statements such as these, it sounds like they are getting your typical DRM and failware cruft we've come to expect from our modern Bloatware OSes. Do these ebooks come with impossible-to-remove stickers around the screen too?


Some of the exclusive features of printed books may be relevant for learning, perhaps the tactile sensation or the role that books still have in our culture.

A sound argument is that ebooks provide less spatial landmarks, this kind of context seems to be important for increased retention. See: http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/14/do-e-books-impair-memo...

In this usability research (http://www.nngroup.com/articles/ipad-and-kindle-reading-spee...) they found that ebook reading was slower than print for both the kindle and Ipad, however they weren't able to differentiate those two.


I still find physical books are better when I want to master the whole content of a book.

An often overlooked physical aspect of books is that they "live" directly in the environment, unmediated by screens, icons or distractions. Their physical presence prompts me to read them.

Embarrassingly, I've bought e-books and later realized I forgot about them. They tend to disappear into the "virtual shelf" or some corner of a hard drive somewhere.

The spatial landmarks you mention make a big difference for me. Somehow being able to hold the whole book in my hands helps me build up a mental index of what the book contains. I don't experience the same thing with ebooks.


I solved that by buying an embarrassing number of Kindles -- I just leave one dedicated to a book as I'm reading it, and keep it in a convenient and obvious location. I have audiobooks on my iphone for the gym (using the Audible app), audiobooks on mp3 SD cards for my car, a Kindle by the bed, and have a DX, iPad, second computer for reading things which change more frequently.

4-6 Kindles and everything electronic is still a lot easier for me than storing books.


So kids have to reboot their computers in order to read the textbook? Right, because that will definitely work...

You've just blamed DRM and, in the preceding paragraph, fallen victim to the same fallacy that makes DRM look like a good idea: a computer is under the control of the user, any piece of software or content that seeks to control the computer will likely be broken and rejected.

Also, what do the operating systems have to do with anything at all? Have you ever even used an ebook?

I buy DRM-free books from O'Reilly all the time. But I would never buy a reference book in epub format because I like the ability to flip back and forth between many different sections of the book very quickly (if I have several sections marked I can literally flip to the section I want while picking up the book). Regardless of how good the ebook software becomes, I doubt it can achieve the simplicity of a paper book in this regard. I often use textbooks as reference books, so I feel similarly about textbooks.

Maybe you, or others, don't use certain books in the same way I do. Maybe you do, but don't have the hang-ups that I have. Fine. But that doesn't mean that the solution to my (or others who feel as I do) problem is just better software. That's unbelievably arrogant.


this ^ 100

I started my PhD last year and was shocked at how intentionally broken academic e-books are. A few examples of daily experiences that send me into fits of frustrated rage and incredulity.

- ebook substitute for a text that only allows online perusal and restrict download for offline use. - ebooks that only allow access to one user per institution at a time (in an institution with 30k+ students) - ebooks that can only be viewed by adobe digital editions. - journal article pdf downloads that only display bitmap images of text so that copying quotes is impossible.

I'd much rather use electronic resources as physical storage of 200 texts per years is just nuts, but sadly, publishers would rather extract rent from a broken system.


You can generally solve the DRM problem through bookwarez. I have ~no problem pirating to format shift. I'm fortunate that all the academic stuff I care about is available as pdf preprints directly from the author (cs/crypto vs. bio, I guess)


Personally, the most significant problem I've faced trying to use textbooks on e-readers is multitasking. Quite often, I want to refer to some information a few pages back, which, on a paper textbook, is dead simple: you just flip back and forth wherever you want. You just don't get that level of spatial awareness with ebooks.


A product I would buy in a heartbeat is a cross between an e-book reader and a paper book. I want a "book" with front & back covers, with a dozen e-ink "pages" in between. Each page would be able to display text on the front and the back. As I flip each physical page, the text is ready for reading. When I get to the last page in the stack, I would flip back to the first sheet for another 24 pages of text.

The advantage to this layout is that I can flip back and forth between several pages quickly like a paper book, but I have the light weight and capacity of an e-book reader. I assume it would cost more than a current Kindle, Kobo or Nook but I think the more familiar feel of a paper book would be worth the cost.


It's a cool thought, but if each page was also designed to pick up touch (which it would have to to serve much of the same functionality of a current ereader) something like this would probably cost over 24 times the current cost of an ereader. Add to that the consideration that if the pages were meant to look and feel like paper, they would suffer the same danger of accidentally ripping them, and I don't think ANYONE would buy the product you described.


I agree with you that I don't think the current technology can support what I want. But perhaps some of the flexible screens coming on the market in the near future could work? The hardware to deal with page refreshes could be shared among all physical pages, so that would help bring down the cost. The pages wouldn't have to be an exact match for paper - I'd be happy with something flexible and paper-ish that I can turn back and forth.


Just now saw this response. My thought at the moment is that if this would be feasible in the future, it would still be anywhere from 5 to 10 times the cost of (what is currently) a traditional e-reader. But perhaps in 10 years, the equivalent of today's b&n simple touch would retail for $20-30 and the product described in your post (which it looks like you've deleted for some reason) could be made available for less than $200


I can't help but wonder whether this is just a limitation of our current e-reader software that will be overcome in the next years.


A flat tablet will not, and never will, provide the same spatial awareness as a physical object, by definition.

You can say that it's not important, but it's not a problem that can be solved in software.


Not really, though. If, for example, I could pinch to zoom out of the text, identify the parts I'm interested in, and zoom back in simultaneously on two different areas of the book side-by-side (using both hands, say) _that_ would be superior to what I can do with paper now. And much more convenient. I don't think it's impossible to do with software alone; quite a small leap for something like onenote today. The problem, as the top comment notes, is the way everyone treats text as purely linear.


Another issue with e-(text)books is DRM. Users are often seriously limited in their ability to consume content in a way that fits their study styles the best. For example, a student might be quite comfortable with Evernote for taking notes, but the e-book's DRM might not allow copying passages, tables and/or images (or even linking to them). Even when there's no explicit DRM, PDF files are notoriously bad at integration with other software.

Usual solution: the printer becomes a DRM-circumvention device.


The best ebook I ever used: Wikipedia. Seriously.

"Searching" a textbook for the "good stuff" is a bug dressed up as a feature. With an ebook you get the ability to sift through cruft faster while still dealing with the cruft, paying the cost on par with a brand new book, and then not being able to dump the book on somebody else when you're done with it. Ebooks might be the future, but right now they're a serious ripoff and everybody in college knows it. Just follow the money.


As a student, I don't really like textbooks at all, printed or electronic. I consider them --and the supplemental materials like lecture slides provided by the publisher-- to largely be a crutch used by professors who either can't or won't tailor their instruction to the class and necessities at hand. That's not to say textbooks can't be useful when you're on your own learning a subject, but I've had far better experiences in-class with either online articles and tutorial work (think LON-CAPA) or good old fashioned blackboard work-through.

On a more fundamental level, there is absolutely no reason for textbooks to be priced as they are. This goes double for e-book versions, that are typically crippled DRM rentware wrapped in an interface that makes you want to tear your eyes out. I used to be frustrated that professors hadn't banded together and developed a creative commons style curricula online, or at least not required the latest versions of texts (older versions are typically far more readily available at an appropriate price). What on earth is stopping a motivated group of academics from putting together textbooks for all of the basic courses one encounters at a university? Hell, such projects already exist: Paul's Online Notes did more for me regarding Calculus than any textbook. But then I realized that the professors don't get to make those calls. They're made by people above them, which is ridiculous.


Thank you for mentioning Paul's Online Notes, this will be invaluable for me this summer term as I am signed up for calc 2 but have had 10years away from maths.


I run a price comparison site for textbooks, SlugBooks. There are two simple factors which impact slow adoption of digital books:

1) college bookstores. It's a distribution issue. Students are used to walking into the bookstore to buy something. The bookstore is used to selling them something. Digital books hurt that experience so there's an inherent disadvantage to bookstores promoting digital. This is as big a factor as any.

2) price. Publishers think they've priced digital books fairly, because they use the full retail value as their point of reference. Instead of paying $200 for a full retail copy, students will surely pay $100 for a digital rental, right? They fail to understand that digital books are going to be acquired online, meaning there is a greater chance students purchasing these books will be comparing prices. College bookstores which offer digital as an option even compare that price to their other (often more affordable) options, like buying it used. That $100 digital rental is frequently available for less than $60 on Amazon or sites like it.

It's not a feature problem, it's distribution and really bad pricing.

Until publishers pay attention to these things, digital will never catch on (regardless of how much they innovate technology).


Fascinating findings.

When it comes to studying and trying to retain information, I've found in my personal experience that greater "inefficiency" ironically leads to better retention i.e. the fact that I spend more time and effort taking physical pen-and-paper notes in a notebook causes me to dwell longer on the material I'm studying, thus increasing my retention and understanding. You could argue that today's technology makes it TOO easy to read material and take notes on it, causing you to spend less time on the material and decreasing retention.

And I think this finding is key: The paper textbook helps them to avoid the distractions of being on the computer or the Internet, the temptations associated with checking e-mail, Facebook, or surfing the Web for unrelated information.

Perhaps giving out e-readers at schools used ONLY for e-textbooks would help e-textbooks catch on more. The same reason going to a library will help you study better than you would in your room, perhaps having a dedicated interface for class readings would help you to focus much more than having your e-textbook buried somewhere in your desktop/tablet/smartphone.


Last year, I did Academic Decathlon and we had an enormous binder containing study material for seven subjects.

Being the lazy and practical boy I am, I chose to instead read the PDFs on my tablet (10 inches) instead. While it worked for me, I can definitely say that things were easier with the paper version.

Being able to flip back and review something quickly (What battle was Shaka Zulu famous for again?) and then resume reading is huge and something that doesn't work very well on tablets at the moment. Will it ever improve? Probably. But I don't think we'll get to the point where it becomes better than paper in that aspect. The tangible aspect of paper is just so nice.


Our computer science department used to pay for printing lecture materials. This great service was discontinued this year thanks to budget cuts. The students are not amused to the extent that we are now setting up our own printing infrastructure to keep the books available. Fortunately they are available as PDF. Even though university is free, not everyone is able or willing to purchase an e reading device. During exams, electronic devices are not allowed, while some lecturers allow printed scripts or books to be used in exams.


This one is easy. Most e-text currently available are mere DRM'd to death copies of the paper text. They have none of the good features the electronic format, (you usually can't copy and paste [1]). They cost nearly the same, in some cases more (I use the same text for two consecutive courses, which would require two rental terms, increasing the cost beyond the cost of the paper version). Students are right to avoid these things. They don't even need to have passed their first Econ to figure this one out.

As far as my own courses go, almost every single exam I give is open-book open-notes. Problematic for the e-text version is that I don't allow tablets, phones, laptops or other potential communication devices during exams. I'd love to be able to sort this problem out, so I could get more creative with exams, but currently, I think it makes it too easy to cheat.

[1] Of course, c&p-ing huge swathes of text is normally not a great technique for note-taking. But, I think it's perfectly acceptable for things that were only ever intended as reference material to begin with (pictures, charts, graphs, timing diagrams, schematics, etc).


For me also the biggest issue when reading technical or scientific pdf is a difficulty to quickly go forth and back. What annoys me is that it is simply a software deficiency. I know serval pdf readers that do some things right and combined they would make a perfect reader. I love the way smart office 2 handles zooming (when zooming out you can see up to 9 pages at once and scroll quickly). It should pre-caches pages for a more smooth experience (this is a big issue with all readers, even on high end machines rendering is too slow, I don't get why), but zooming is cool. Unfortunately it lacks all other features as it is simply a reader and you can't make annotations, bookmarks, etc.). To sum up I am waiting for a pdf reader able to quickly pre-cache all pages and render then quickly when I move my finger to flip pages both ways. Being able to zoom out and see many pages at once (with bookmarks, highlights and annotations visible). E-paper is probably still too slow for it, but any modern tablet should have no problems.


As a student, I actually prefer PDF ebooks. I own a few textbooks from which I have stripped the DRM and I use a PDF reader that is comfortable to me (GoodReader on the iPad).

I agree with some of the commenters here that DRM appears to one of the main problems of eTextbooks.

It is responsible for locking students in to using the publisher's reader software which is usually buggy, limits their printing privileges, and more... For example the publisher Cengage is now employing new DRM software that only lets you stream protected JPEG pages from the book in some HTML5 viewer, instead of their previous solution that simply used a protected PDF file. This means that you have access to an inferior version of the book, instead of the vector PDF version.

Publishers don't realize that a person can just scan the paper book and upload it online, thus defeating all their fancy protections. For example, I've taken multiple books from the library that had no digital editions available for purchase or a DRM that was (as of yet) uncrackable and scanned them so I could read them on my iPad.


Real electronics books are fine, but some crap they try to sell as such not really.

I mostly buy and read technical DRM free books in pdf form and read it with my Ipad, mostly or a big multitouch 19'' portrait screen wall mounted with an arm.

Some things I hate is they putting my name on some part of the document, so I remove it with scripts.

The problem is DRM infested books, for them I buy online the dead tree thing, wait for weeks (I live in Europe), I use the radial saw for cutting the book covers, scan it with an automatic feeder scanner and store it in an storage room, convert them to pdf.

IMHO, there are some things you need for reading technical books with ebooks: 1-Retina display resolution on books. 2-DRM free. 3-Fast indexing and random access(already there with good software). 4-Fast page transitions( no 1 second "wait for turn page" delays).


Being able to search text is extremely useful. I also find it easier to juggle multiple resources on a computer rather than physical texts.

Cross referencing different sections of different books quickly is something I think is an exclusive benefit to using e-books.


That's like saying car drivers prefer real horses to mechanized steel animatronic ones.


Ebooks are obviously superior technology, however the technology is of more benefit to the publisher and distributor than the reader.

In fact, an Ebook requires a particular device and battery charge; it cannot be readily shared unless you want to give away or lend your device. You cannot easily annotate or draw a diagram next to a description. There isn't yet a satisfactory electronic equivalent to the experience of flicking through a book.

IMHO borrowing another student's well thumbed and annotated textbook will often be more useful than downloading my own pristine copy.


...and with publishers trying to preserve their ancient business model, is anyone surprised that the digital versions are half-hearted efforts to "modernize"?


I'd be the same but on the basis that I spent about £750 on text books at university when I went. Recouping a chunk of that by reselling them was important.

You can't do that with e-textbooks and I bet they cost the same.

plus eBook readers are horrible for textbooks. I have a hacked kobo touch and its pretty much only suitable for linear reading.


Well it is not surprising -- the advantages of digital books are mostly cut out of the picture. Digital books should mean unlimited access for unlimited time, the ability to print the books, share the books with others, etc.; these would help to make up for the disadvantages.


I believe that educating young people using ebooks is extremely useful. Just ask my 6 years old niece, if you can get her attention while she's using my iPad. Trust me, it's hard. Getting more educational stuff to technology is the way to go. In a few decades it's all what we'll have.


In my computer theory class, my professor recommends one book but says that his lectures are self-contained and reading the book isn't necessary but could be helpful.

I read books on my iPad but not technical books. I think the main problem is navigation, I'm not sure, there's just something about it.


if i'm quickly reading through a paper, i love using qiqqa, but for whole textbooks i often flip through pages (as chapters may reference previous chapters) and use the information as a different type of reference material. For example, when referencing a conference or journal paper, i'm much more concerned with an overview of their method and experimentation - where with a textbook i usually really read most of the formulas to try to understand the process.

What it boils down to is that ebooks are difficult to flip through, there's usually two types of page numbers - the page of the entire book and the page number within the book, and they are often not equal - making finding a specific passage or chapter more difficult than it should be.


my daughters high school issues ipads and delivers all work assignments and makes textbooks available both on the ipad and in hard copy if the student wants it.

her use pattern is weighted significantly towards the digital content. the only place i see her fall back to the textbook is in math.

of particular note though is the app that is used in her Chinese language class. Without a doubt the most well implemented use of the ipad platform for any app i have yet seen anywhere.

this is the future. i'd probably assert that these studies, if run in another 2-3 years would be quite different in their findings. they will be issuing the ipads at the middle school here i believe next fall.

this conversion is going to happen...only a question of time.




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