Teaching and Learning with eBooks

This is my first blog post from the 2009 NABT – part of our live blogging experiment.  As I’m typing this, I’m sitting in the Denver Sheraton lobby (taking advantage of their free wireless) and my head is full of plans for the day.  Too many good sessions and not enough time!!  I will try to keep you posted on the sessions as the day goes by (so forgive my typos!) and will add appropriate links and photos later.

My first session of the day was with Jean DeSaix (UNC Chapel Hill) who conducted a workshop on using ebooks in college teaching. She gave us the low down on a study they’ve conducted at Chapel Hill. It started when the state of N. Carolina threatened their university with decreased funding if they did not lower textbook costs for students.  In response, their campus Center for Faculty Excellence began a study of e-book use in fall 2008.  Twelve instructors across the campus (in seven disciplines) agreed to participate.  At the beginning of the semester, they gave the participating students a survey and then administered a survey at the end of the semester. Additionaly 10 students who used ebooks participated in a focus group.  The average ebook adoption rate by the students across nine of the pilot courses was less than 1%,while in just three of the courses, the adoption rate was 12%.  This higher participation rate was due to the teacher in those courses, making it clear (or not) that the ebook was available and encouraging them to try it.

Students report that the cost of textbooks is really important to them and it was clear, through this experiment, that the ebook did in fact lower the cost to the student.

The ebook that Jean used in her biology course (Campbell/Reece 8e) included all the text and images from the print book along with hyperlinks to other online content, highlighting function, search function, and note-taking features.

One participant asked about the access to the ebook – how long is it avaiable for students.  Jean explained that access is limited – it varies with the publisher – but, in her case, it was 180 days. She went on to say that most students weren’t worried by that because, when they buy their print books, they tend to not keep them anyway.

So, what were the results? Student reactions were mixed – some loved it, some clearly preferred the print book.  Did the ebooks help the students?  Jean didn’t have any information on the performance of the students with or without ebooks.

One member of the workshop described her experience using a completely free textbook (by Michael Faraday) this year.  She described it as an “imperfect experience” – errors, links that didn’t work, difficulty referring to content by page number but, for her, it was worth saving the students $150.  She did mention that she missed having all the support ancillaries and the adjunct instructors really missed those materials.

What Jean really liked about using ebooks was the ability for students to retreive information quickly in class.  She invites students to bring their laptops to class and they freely use the ebook during class time. She thinks that it was easier for them to use all parts of a “heavy” book which seems to reduce student anxiety. Jean made extensive use of the instructor note/annotation feature in her ebook so she was able to add  her annotations, notes, and suggestions to the material and her students could see them.  As Jean described it,  with this abilitly, I can lead them, sentence by sentence, through the book.  For instance, I can tell them –  ’this is a great summary figure – pay close attention to it and use it!’”

So, what were the problems?  Jean says the main problem was diffuse support.  If a student has a trouble accessing the ebook, it’s tough to know if the issue is their computer, the internet connection or a problem with the publisher’s delivery of the ebook.  The bookstore culture has been an issue too – they’re not wild about the ebooks and didn’t always let the students know when they were available.

In the follow-up focus group, the student reactions were mixed.   Some students just loved it but some talked about the fact that they were too distracted when they used the ebook (wandering off to check Facebook or email).  For the most part the students hadn’t used electronic textbooks before.  Many of her students described themselves as “hybrids” – they like doing a bit of both.

As for future advice, if you plan on trying ebooks, Jean suggests  that you help students map learning preferences to appropriate media (if they work better with print, buy a print book) and be sure to notify students at the start of the course about their textbook options.  Jean feels that it is definitely worthwhile to explore this  technology – it might well lead to a paperless classroom.

Written by rheyden in: Biology Teaching |


  • Cherylann Hollinger says:

    Thanks for the information Robin! I will be sure to share this with colleagues and other stakeholders as we go through the process of becoming a one-to-one high school. Did Jean mention whether or not she knew of any other college that conducted a similar study on the use of e-books?

  • rheyden says:

    Hi Cherylann! Good to hear from you, as always. No, she didn’t mention any other schools. But, if you sent her an email, I’m sure she’d be happy to tell you if there were any others. Wish you were here!

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