I have – over the past 4-5 years – spent a considerable amount of time evaluating electronic textbooks. This has been both something I have done out of personal interest and out of necessity given I am User Experience Designer and have also worked in academics as an instructor for a number of years. I am also a student and have used numerous different e-texts and a number of different platforms. As an instructor, I have recently begun polling my students to gain a sense of what technologies they use and what technologies might supplement their existing technologies. In other words, I am interested in whether they use Kindle or Nook, iOS or Android, and whether they have a desktop computer or a laptop or even a tablet. It amazes me universities are not paying closer attention to these numbers. But what also amazes me is e-text publishers aren’t really paying attention either.
The book is a pretty good design if you really think about it. And if you have studied the history of the book as I have, you’d know it was a considerable improvement over the scroll or clay tablets. The book, as a design, has been around since the 14th century and became common in the 15th century. It’s a design that has lasted 700 years. So, if you are going to replace a design that has lasted 700 years, I think you have your work cut out for you. Replacing the book is difficult because you essentially have to make something designed better or more convenient to use or significantly cheaper to produce.
As opposed to the book, e-texts are clunky, platform dependent in many instances and often inconsistent in availability. There has been a recent series of articles on the e-text published in the Chronicle: Volume 59, Issue 21: February 1, 2013. But , one particular article published this past summer – Students Find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features – noted the problems and challenges e-texts are currently facing. I have been able to concur this with my own students through surveys that, while they have a small sample size, trend towards a dislike of the e-text. I would tend to agree with these assessments as one of my first assignments as a graduate student in Human-Computer Interaction involved immersion with an electronic text. I found a number of issues – most of which involved a poorly designed interface.
I think there are number of problems with e-texts and can understand why For Many Students, Print Is Still King. I’d like to compile the problems with e-texts through a series of articles designed to explore why the publishing industry is approaching the situation in the wrong way and what can be done to change any of this…or what is currently being done that could be successful.
The publishing industry has created a huge problem though. Their primary challenge at this point is that e-texts have developed a poor reputation. I think the potential might be largely missed as a result. But getting a bad name, making that bad first impression or getting bad press can last for decades and truly skew the truth. There are a number of examples of this in history. The auto industry is a good example. Consider the Ford Pinto (which was shown to be no more fire prone than any other car of the day), the Edsel, or the SUV rollover scare in the nineties (which was largely a media scare). All of these incidents painted a picture in our minds and soured our taste for the products. Even when the information is later found to be false, the product often suffers from past negative perceptions.
The first thing the publishing industry will have to combat is the poor reputation they will have to rebuild. Even a greatly designed product at this point will have an uphill journey. In the next article, I’ll explore the mistakes and pitfalls involved in this journey thus far and how the industry might be able to recover.