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Pumping the E-Brakes

December 23, 2011

It would be tempting to blame the Jonas Brothers for the stalling of Daytona State College’s effort to nudge its students and faculty toward e-textbooks.

Kent Sharples, the president of the Florida community college, resigned last year after allegedly loaning $1.4 million to a local arts group to bring the fraternal pop stars (among others) to Daytona Beach for a concert without first seeking approval from the Board of Trustees.

Rand Spiwak, Daytona State’s chief financial officer, had defended the loan in a “heated exchange” with the trustees during the controversy. Spiwak’s dispute with the board only got worse after Sharples’s exit, and Spiwak soon departed as well, retiring to Idaho.

He took a large measure of Daytona State’s e-textbook mojo with him. Spiwak had been the champion of an ambitious project at Daytona State that would encourage widespread adoption of digital textbooks in exchange for discounts from publishers. In his absence, the project has been placed on the backburner. “It was almost as if that was ... the last time anybody even thought about that e-book project,” said Carol Eaton, Daytona State’s new president.

And that's how the Jonas Brothers killed e-textbooks at Daytona State.

Well, actually, it's more complicated than that. Daytona State has not abandoned its e-textbook initiative, but it has tempered its approach. And while Spiwak’s departure may have weakened the college’s enthusiasm for the transition to digital, a recently completed report on a yearlong pilot at Daytona State, comparing the satisfaction and success of students using all electronic texts with students using all print, has also complicated the picture.

The findings of the study, in which college officials collected data through surveys and focus groups over four semesters, suggest that making the transition to electronic content could pose challenges — especially if the college tried to force the transition by giving students and faculty no choice, as some for-profit institutions have done.

“Avoid top-down mandates,” the study’s authors wrote as their top recommendation. “Institutions that require all instructors to simultaneously go e-text might be courting disaster.”

The majority of the students in the study who used exclusively e-texts came away dissatisfied. While they appreciated that there was no possibility of losing or forgetting their textbooks when they could be simply summoned to a device, the students told officials that they found it fatiguing to read off a computer screen (the students used netbooks, rather than e-readers, due to the unavailability, at the time, of certain key texts on the Amazon Kindle).

“During the focus groups, most participants acknowledged that they had not read as much of the assigned material in electronic as they would have in hard copy,” write the authors of the study.

Some students struggled with using software applications rather than the simple hardware of a bound book. “Though some students easily navigated e-text interfaces and fully utilized digital tools, others struggled with basic e-text functionality like creating a user account, entering access codes, locating readings, creating bookmarks, using highlighting tools, and writing notes,” said the researchers.

These obstacles were not necessarily unforeseen, but they did pose logistical questions for faculty. “A few students in each section required ongoing instruction in how to use electronic resources,” the study found. “Faculty struggled to determine when and how this instruction should be provided.”

In general, “Faculty felt that the e-texts had a dampening effect” on student engagement,” the authors added. The switch to digital came with bugs that, while mostly minor, added up and disrupted the classroom, they said -- and not in the Clay Christensen sense.

“Teaching with the e-text [without an e-reader] makes collaborative exercises in which individual students would be looking at different pages in the text very difficult,” said one instructor in a focus group interview. “Students were unable to refresh their memory of the reading in the moments just before class began.”

“It was a detriment to learning the material,” said another instructor. “Many students did not do the required reading; they simply found it inconvenient.”

The rationale for an institutional push toward all-digital content would be curbing the cost of course materials for students. While marginal to tuition at pricier, more selective institutions, textbook prices represent a significant piece of the total cost of going to Daytona State, a nonselective community college of mostly part-time students, of whom a third are the major wage earners of their households and nearly a quarter are considered “low income,” according to the study.

The idea, Spiwak told Inside Higher Ed last year, would be to cut deals with textbook publishers by guaranteeing them a critical mass of e-textbook sales, semester after semester. Students would pay a digital content fee markedly lower than the normal price of an e-textbook.  (Students could also use the fee as a credit toward buying new print textbooks -- which would not be forbidden, but the students would have to pay the difference between the discounted digital fee and the price of the new textbook.)

Either way, the publishers would win: The arrangement would nudge students to buy their texts directly from the publishers rather turning to the used or rental markets -- potentially killing off those secondary markets, which currently siphon money away from publishers. It would be a plum arrangement for Daytona State’s cash-strapped students, as well, Spiwak had said, because they would be getting publisher-direct course materials at half the market price.

Publishers profit, students save, and the inevitable digital future comes into bloom. That was the pitch, anyway.

But a couple of findings from the pilot study complicate this narrative. Forget that purchasing temporary access to e-textbooks proved substantially more expensive than renting print versions (the discount deals that Spiwak had proposed in his vision were not in place during the pilot); it turns out that the sticker price was not the only “cost” involved in adopting digital texts.

Students, young and old alike, “commented on the ‘hidden costs of the e-text,’ which included computer access, web access, and (sometimes) printing,” write the study’s authors. Furthermore, “they noticed the digital divide between ‘disadvantaged’ students whose home environment was not ‘resource rich’ and ‘advantaged’ students with convenient, reliable, around-the-clock web access,” the authors wrote. “Finding the time to study was not enough; students also needed to be in the right location.”

There is a major caveat to the findings of the Daytona State study, though: Many of its more discouraging portions read not as the intractable conditions of the digital college of the future, but as the inevitable -- and in many cases, fixable -- hiccups that come with adjusting to a new normal.

The fatigue of reading off a computer screen, for example, would be less likely to cause students to neglect readings if they were to use dedicated e-readers, whose screens are specially engineered to be easier on the eyes. The connectivity issues that some students complained about could be addressed locally by campus network administrators, and more recent e-readers do not rely on a local network to connect to the Web.

In their write-up of the study, the Daytona State researchers acknowledged that many of the bugs that led the majority of students in the all-digital pilot to say they were dissatisfied either have been worked out, or soon will be.

“The rapid evolution of both e-texts and e-readers will also help smooth the way forward,” they write. “Indeed, we are struck by the way many of the difficulties our e-text rental and netbook rental sections encountered have already been solved by ongoing product development since our study began in 2009, from the enhancement and diversification of e-texts to the rise of the tablet computer.”

The researchers admit that the limited scope of the pilots and some sampling biases prevented them from drawing any firm conclusions about what effects, if any, a campuswide shift to e-texts might have on student performance and retention.

Nevertheless, Daytona State is moving forward with its e-textbook project, they assert, notwithstanding the recent turnover atop the administration. “Our analysis of these findings has led us to expect that many students (and some faculty, too) will be reluctant to change,” they write, “but clear financial incentives as well as strong technical and instructional support will help ensure a successful conversion.”

But there is no timetable for any campuswide adoption. Whereas authority over Jonas Brothers-related expenditures remains concentrated at the top of Daytona State’s leadership, the college’s new president says, the transition to electronic course materials, when it happens, will start at the bottom.

“Rather than jumping in whole hog,” says Eaton, “this is going to come up through our faculty.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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