Will E-books As Text Books Ever Work?

    September 30, 2009

As students begin to reject the Amazon Kindle ebook reader, the idea of ebooks as text books for colleges should start taking center stage. What device or system is going to truly work for busy students who want to use ebooks, but are finding it hard to use them at all on any device?

Ebooks are a great thing, unless you can’t use them the way that you want to use them or the way that you have grown to use them. Some people highlight massive sections of books to underscore what they think they need to know. Some people write in the margins, and others simply never crack open the books at all. Some students don’t even bother to purchase books thinking that they will never need them in the classroom. All of these are valid uses, and wholly dependent upon the person that is using them.

Realistically there are only a couple of devices that are upcoming and are truly vaporware right now, but if they should come out, and if they can be used in an academic environment there are some must haves based on how people use books. The backend architecture of the school will also have to adapt to meet the needs of how students use books.

The book must be on the device in its entirety, or be available to read without pauses. Some of the ebook systems only allow printing or access to pages one at a time on a limited seat basis. This is not an ebook reader issue, this is a supplier issue. Issues like DRM are also going to play in with how people use books. If the DRM solution does not work with any ebook reader then there are going to be issues, and students will reject the entire ebook solution including the reader.

The book must be highlight able, mark able, and annotate able. These marks, highlights and annotations should be searchable by keyword(s).

Students should be able to print pages with their highlights and annotations intact on the page like it was part of the original content.

It would be great if students working on a team project could share annotations, highlights and notes with each other as they team read chapters in the book. This way everyone can distribute the work load like they would with a normal book, but use technology for what it is intended for, making things easier rather than harder.

Books must stay on the device forever, or if they are removed, the linkages between the notes, highlights and annotations should remain. If a student goes through the notes and wants to read that section again, the book should be redelivered to the student or that section of the book should be redelivered.

Students are not ever going to pay as much for an ebook as they will for a physical book. Some experiments on Amazon with Kindle shows that the best price point for an ebook is between .99 and 2.99 dollars. While no one will get rich at this level, once the book is written, why charge 89 dollars per ebook? We have allowed the ITunes store and other ebooks to train us to expect a price point between .99 and 9.99 dollars. Anything over that makes people really uncomfortable, and might forestall a purchase of the ebook. Even Amazon notes that many ebooks are priced under 10 dollars. People will buy more if they pay less, it works.

Battery life has to be better than 12 hours, preferably 24 hours of continuous use. When it runs out of battery life it should have kept all my notes, highlights and other materials. There is nothing worse than losing hours of work because the battery went flat.

Must have a color screen, this might sound crazy, but if you are taking a media class, you want to have color. If you are taking a web design class, you need to have color. Black and white will not work in this case. And it should render pictures wonderfully, because textbooks often have a lot of pictures to help students grasp the information being presented. A wall of black and white text is not user friendly.

Really this boils down to a usability issue, people got used to using books in a certain way, and our electronic ebook readers should not stray too far from those usage patterns. The question is will the mythical Apple Tablet, Crunchpad or Archos 9 be able to do all these things? While they are not ebook readers, they should meet the minimum points to make these needs end up being part of the design of the device. While the Crunchpad is going to rely more on a cloud based backend, there is no reason why the Archos 9 or Apple Tablet should not allow local storage of information. As the bottom line of all the ways that people use books, ebooks should reflect how people use them.

That is the biggest challenge right now, allowing ebooks to be used the same way that regular books are used.