Students and Ebooks

I have been meaning to report on the outcomes of a question I set in the final theory exam of our CORE subject Information Technology 1 in our May 2009 semester. This subject is taken by virtually all students enrolled in my university at some stage in their degrees. The short answer question was:

There appears to be a trend for printed text books to be replaced by electronic books that must be read on digital devices. Indicate whether or not you are in favour of this trend. Give several reasons for your choice.

I was about 150 scripts into marking the total of 372 scripts and I happened to tweet my impression of the answers to that point:

ebooktweet

This sparked a positive response from Peta who discussed it with her fellow librarians. Because of this interest a proper count of the students’ answers was in order to confirm if my first impressions were accurate. I decided to put each answer into 5 categories:

  • For: answer and reasons given were wholly in favour of ebooks replacing printed books
  • For-but: in favour overall but recognised some disadvantages that were described in the answer
  • Neutral: neither for or against with reasons given on each side
  • Against-but: not in favour but recognised some advantages to ebooks
  • Against: answer and reasons given were wholly against the use of ebooks

In the end, my first impressions proved incorrect although the result was close. Combining both ‘for’ categories and both ‘against’ categories the numbers are 50% in favour and 44% against with 6% in the neutral category.

foragainst

The more detailed results show that 17% of students recognised that the choice was not entirely clear cut and there were both advantages and disadvantages with ebooks.

detailforagainst

So as far as this particular class of students is concerned ebooks are favoured by a small majority. Hopefully our librarians can take something useful from this result. For the record I place myself in the ‘For but’ category.

Postscript: I tried to use Twitter search on this day (27 October 2009) to find my original tweet to no avail – it turns out that 19 August 2009 is too far in the past for Twitter! Fortunately our institutional Yammer service was quickly able to find my tweet text (use of the #yam hashtag), but did not provide the unique link to the Twitter tweet. Using Google search with a phrase from the tweet returned a single result from dipity.com (maybe the recently heralded Google Social Search would have helped me). This dipity service keeps a timeline of chosen social network activity. I had all but forgotten about them except they emailed me about updated features this week. Going back to 19 August in my dipity timeline shows the tweet in all it glory together with the Twitter status link. Well done dipity.

dipitytweet

PPS Update: Google just announced general availability of experimental Social Search

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About Michael Rees
Academic in IT interested in Web 2.0 and social media

6 Responses to Students and Ebooks

  1. David Tangye says:

    The way I see it, it is a pointless question to ask. The human race cannot afford to waste trees to print so much stuff needlessly on paper, and the education, government and corporate institutions are the biggest wasters. They need to set an example by spearheading the move off paper and onto electronic formats. Unfortunately institutions are just that: institutional, in most ways. Unfortunately “institutional” equates to conservative, complacent and backward in many ways. Real changes are needed. Real sacrifices and hard decisions are needed if we are to have a future. People in institutions need to start showing a lot more leadership and a lot less complacency. Being concerned whether students like this trend or not should be seen as irrelevant, and presenting the wrong focus.

  2. Michael Rees says:

    Wow, good to see a typically direct comment from you David. I happen to be with you on this one. You may, though, be interested in some of the reasons the students raised for not using ebooks (emotional arguments in some cases):

    • the ecological cost of the ebook readers, network, servers, power generation etc exceeds that of the paper which is recyclable and can be produced sustainably
    • can’t annotate, write in margin, bend page corners, add sticky notes and otherwise extend the use of an ebook
    • can still use a printed book without power
    • ebooks readers/laptops/tablets lack the ‘feel’ and ‘comfort’ of a printed book
    • can’t sell an ebook in the second-hand market
    • authors earn less from ebooks

    Now you can argue many of these points of course but it shows what’s on their minds. Also in our case since we expect our students to pay high fees we need to take their views into account.

  3. David Tangye says:

    “the ecological cost of the ebook readers, network, servers, power generation etc exceeds that of the paper which is recyclable and can be produced sustainably”
    I wondered whether this issue would come up. I think it is the key question: which is the most effective long-term (ie environmentally viable) solution.

    “can’t annotate, write in margin, bend page corners, add sticky notes and otherwise extend the use of an ebook”
    A temporary technical issue perhaps? Why can’t you bookmark and annotate in them in some way? They are currently read-only? If so that needs to be fixed, surely?

    “ebooks readers/laptops/tablets lack the ‘feel’ and ‘comfort’ of a printed book”
    Oh dear!! The planet dies a death of a thousand cuts, but we really need to feel comfortable. That is the whole problem right there. I will not be here, but in my childrens’ lifetime, they are going to have a horrible time of it, if people don’t start making hard decisions right now, and significant changes to their daily living habits.

    “can’t sell an ebook in the second-hand market”
    Why not? Transfer a license?

    “authors earn less from ebooks”
    An artificially created nonsense that spins off from the currently totally broken IP laws that serve only parasitic corporates.

    “Now you can argue many of these points of course but it shows what’s on their minds.”
    Minds that need enlightening no doubt, not fed more institutional intelligence (an oxymoron if ever I have known one).

    “Also in our case since we expect our students to pay high fees we need to take their views into account.”
    An interesting paradox in a way, as you are presumably paid by them to guide them into better and more currently relevant ways of thinking about their world and their place, if any, in it. I admit I am probably completely ignorant about what your uni IS meant to be providing.

  4. Peta says:

    Thanks for analysing all the responses. The comments from students are helpful for libraries in choosing which ebook providers to select and for providers in developing user interfaces.

  5. Michael Rees says:

    David, I think you hugely underestimate the task of persuading people to pay top dollar for wildly radical educational practices even if they are environmentally friendly. Some leading edge features can be attractive and we now have new types of teaching spaces and are starting to leverage virtualisation in a big way. We can be best of breed but not revolutionary. Thanks to my efforts and the support of the library ebooks have been available to our IT students for 3 or 4 years. Despite my praising the benefits in every class I teach few students use them. They have access to thousands of books online from their laptops but prefer the few printed books they carry with them. When hard, brave decisions affect business we know what the outcomes will be. A crusade to help the planet will need legislation to have any effect.

  6. David Tangye says:

    “A crusade to help the planet will need legislation to have any effect.” Yup, that is the conclusion I have reached. Or put another way, humans will take themselves to oblivion, unless governments step in and make some very unpopular laws. In a democracy, I wonder whether that will be possible, at least in any effective timeframe.

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