Higher education: E-Textbook's Fast Growth

As a graduate student at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ, Dan Kerrigan had extensive experience with e-textbooks. Nearly all of his textbooks were in PDF format. Kerrigan, an assistant fire marshal for the East Whiteland Township, PA, Fire...


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As a graduate student at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ, Dan Kerrigan had extensive experience with e-textbooks. Nearly all of his textbooks were in PDF format. Kerrigan, an assistant fire marshal for the East Whiteland Township, PA, Fire Department, liked that e-textbooks are portable, built into the cost of the course and easy to access. But he had reservations when it came to easily finding specific passages and the inability to build a bookshelf-based library.

Now, as an adjunct instructor at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA, Kerrigan incorporates e-textbooks in courses he teaches in fire science and public policy. He finds his students mirror his undergraduate impressions of this emerging technology. Based on growing prominence and publisher support, e-textbooks are here to stay, but will they make the printed page obsolete? The jury is still out.

The e-book movement probably started with Project Gutenberg. Not the Gutenberg press and movable type from the 1440s, but the ambitious project begun in 1971 by Michael Stern Hart when he invented the e-book. Project Gutenberg, a volunteer initiative to digitize cultural works, has more than 38,000 documents in its collection in a variety of digital formats with titles ranging from the Declaration of Independence to Alice in Wonderland. With the birth of this technology, which offers portability, low production costs and rapid updating, there is little doubt higher education would gravitate to digital textbooks.

In 1991, the digital textbook was on the verge of a breakthrough when John Warnock, Adobe Systems cofounder, described a system called Camelot that two years later became today’s ubiquitous PDF file. Its capability to be used independent of an operating system, and its open standard for document exchange, gave its facility to represent text and graphics to a multitude of users and devices, an obvious format for e-textbooks.

Student learning

Not only are lower production, storage and shipping costs driving e-textbook development, but student familiarity with the digital age is accelerating this method of textbook delivery. Consider a recent study conducted by OmniUpdate, College Week Live and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA) of 2,300 college-bound students. It found 52% had viewed a school’s website on a mobile device, mostly smartphones. The realization of what writer Mark Prensky a decade ago called “digital natives” – those who from early childhood had the use of video games, cell phones and computers – are a staple at colleges today. As he posits, this group processes information differently than traditional book and chalkboard students – or “digital immigrants.”

Megan Garber, a staff writer at The Atlantic, reported on a recent study concerning the cognitive future of the millennial generation based on surveys of more than 1,000 thought leaders. The survey asked respondents to consider how the Internet and its related environment are changing children’s cognitive capabilities. The survey revealed that many believe this generation’s brain processes are changing, a term the science community calls neuroplasticity.

Multitasking is a way of life. And today’s hyperconnectivity may be resulting in this generation’s lack of patience and concentration. As many casual observers have noted, the “always on” atmosphere has produced in this generation a culture of instant gratification and high expectation. The study’s authors note that beyond these findings, the education system must be changed dramatically to align with these new realities in student learning.

Cost considerations

The University of Cincinnati recently announced plans to let as many as 5,000 students participating in an introductory psychology course access textbooks online for free. They will also be able to purchase a suite of electronic versions of the textbook, which are compatible with a variety of mobile devices, for $35.

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