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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the problems with e-texts – E-texts, so much potential, so little usability. I have a special interest in this subject on a number of levels. First, I’ve been adjunct faculty at a number of different universities teaching in graduate programs. So, I’m the one who essentially decides what text to assign. I have been consistent over the years in maintaining a frugal attitude when it comes to assigning texts. They are expensive and most students don’t have a whole lot of money. E-texts can, potentially, be cheaper – or at least one would think. Another reason I have a special interest in e-texts is because I am a UX designer and I actually interviewed for a position with an e-text startup company last summer – Courseload. It wasn’t a good match. But, Courseload gave me something of a peak into the industry of e-texts.

Most people don’t completely understand the publishing business despite how simple it might seem. Publishing houses own the rights to books, journals etc. That is a given. In order to use one of those texts, you have to pay and secure the rights to it. This is all pretty basic. But, where the problem comes into play is when you have a distributor – or a middleman – like Courseload, EBSCO, Elsevier. Some companies – like Elsevier – also own their own publishing houses. The smaller companies – like Courseload – are merely distributors. All of these companies distribute material they either own or have rights to. So what’s the problem? Licensing across publishing houses.

Let’s suppose I want to assign three e-texts for my class and they are all from different publishers. A platform like Courseload is merely a distributor of publisher content. What they do is provide a module (via software development) that plugs into the University’s Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard and allows students to read the e-texts from within the LMS. This is how a company like Courseload and the publishing industry control the rights or licensing. You can’t access the text unless you are registered for the course and can access the course in the LMS. That is, there is no app, no true mobile support and the user is relegated to accessing the e-text through a browser in an LMS, which can provide for a number of interface and accessibility challenges. But, that’s only part of the problem. The other problem involves the licensing. If I assign three texts and Courseload only has licensing for one, as a student, am I going to bother buying the e-text, navigating a clunky interface and being chained to my computer in order to read it? Or will I just buy the hard copy and spend a few bucks more (or less in many instances)? If I have an iPad, iPhone or other mobile device, I will most certainly have issues accessing my texts since I will then have to use a mobile browser to access the mobile LMS to access the e-text platform – not a good scenario. There is no app for that. I would be better off purchasing an e-text via Amazon and using my Kindle or Kindle app.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg with e-texts right now. There are simply not enough benefits to convince students they should squander their money for a poor user experience. And this is clearly a case where the benefits do not outweigh the detriments.

So what follows is a basic summary of the primary problems with e-texts:

Platform Dependency

In many instances, like the Courseload example, the texts can only be accessed in a certain platform. A company like Courseload should know they need an app for mobile. But, maybe the licensing issues prevent them from distributing publisher content in any other way than locked down within a university LMS. In other instances where you can more easily access your texts (such as Amazon e-texts), you can sometimes port them over to another device. But this isn’t easy. And Amazon has the same licensing issues everyone else does. Not all texts will be available for your Kindle, Nook or your Kobo. That means a student could end up reading a hard text for one class, an e-text off their Amazon Kindle for another and going through an LMS for the third class. Or they could do all of this for a single class! What a mess and who would want to contend with that?

The industry doesn’t understand their users.

It’s clear thus far that the industry does not truly understand their users and what the users want. What devices are they carrying? Do they even want to mix their texts and e-texts? Do they even read their texts? How many students never even purchase the text? Developing profiles or personas of the students is something I am sure companies have done. But it is clear from many approaches taken, that the industry doesn’t have a good handle on the market or the users.

E-texts lack a standardized interface

The controls from one platform to the next can differ significantly. Not only must I contend with multiple platforms, but I must also contend with a dozen or more different interfaces – some of which require multiple logins, user names and access protocols (i.e. VPN) to ensure I am not stealing content. We are beginning to see some similarities in interfaces, but they are still different enough to provide a small learning curve when moving from one system to the next.

The price point is not always where it needs to be.

Why would I pay more for an e-text? There is this mentality that e-texts should be cheaper. Whether it is true or not, does not matter. People generally don’t believe they should have to pay more for an electronic version of a text. Part of this reason is, I suspect, due to the inferior nature of the e-text or e-book. Another part of it is the intangibility of an electronic book. If I’m a student and I want to physically touch, highlight or make marks in the margin of a print book, I certainly don’t expect to pay more for a version that will not allow me to do that. In fact, I should get a deal. Many e-texts don’t offer significant discounts off the print version. Despite the fact that it is lighter as an e-version (as opposed to carrying a heavy text), if the price isn’t right, I am not interested. I’d rather have the print, which allows me quicker navigation and gives me a spatial awareness of the text’s content (see below for more on this).

Clunky interface design

The narrator in the Courseload interview states: “You interact with your textbook in Courseload just as you would a traditional text – only better.” I would beg to differ. I’ve demoed the Courseload text on a number of occasions. I am adjunct faculty with IU and have access to it through Oncourse. The system is about on par with most other e-text systems. Meaning, compared to a regular text, the interface is clunky, the navigation requires more effort, the note system isn’t really worth your time and there is no advantage to using this over a regular text. A textbook is different from a novel where you read straight through the content from page one to page three hundred. Users of texts often read the book as they would a reference book – flipping back and forth between pages and sections. Traditional texts provide a spatial awareness that an e-text doesn’t. That is, you can often remember where something was in a traditional text and flip to an area close to it. You can page through sections much faster. E-texts have the same potential. But, brain plasticity is tricky. When we switch back and forth between interfaces and platforms, it poses certain problems. Brain plasticity is your brain’s ability to retrain itself. Think of a car with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. It would take you awhile, but you could learn to drive that car. If you switched between right and left steering wheel models daily, it would take you a lot longer to learn to drive the right steering wheel model. E-texts are the same way. I think the changing interface, lack of standards and the fact that we switch between e-books and print books inhibits our learning.

Can I keep the book when I’m done?

Some platforms only give you limited time with the e-text (usually a year or so). After that, you no longer have access. Many students would rather simply rent from Amazon or Chegg. Limited access is limited access. Might as well go for the print.

No new features

iBooks Author has the right idea. I can add interactive material to a text, video, Keynote presentations, quizzes and interactive images. Imagine a future where your e-text is connected to internet resources and you can explore beyond the text! The problem is: Most e-texts are not doing this. In fact, most e-texts are as boring as the print version and the only reason students buy either is because university professors and faculty such as myself assign them.

So while I can see all the potential with e-texts, I still can’t recommend them to my students. And I won’t until they meet a certain standard – until they are clearly advantageous over their print counterparts. I see that arriving. I just don’t know when.