Northwest Missouri State University nearly became the first public university to deliver all of its textbooks electronically. Last year the institution’s tech-happy president, Dean L. Hubbard, bought a Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reading device, and liked it so much that he wanted to give every incoming student one.
Students who got the machines quickly asked for their printed books back because it was so awkward to navigate inside the e-books (though a newer version of the device works more gracefully).
Based on my talks with professors, students, and administrators at Northwest Missouri, here are six lessons for any university considering assigning digital textbooks.
1. Judge e-books by their covers. No, not their jacket art, but the device and software used to display them. Those wrappings are key to satisfaction when it comes to electronic textbooks, since the choice of reading device determines whether students can highlight material or easily flip the pages (things they take for granted with printed copies). E-books come in many shapes and sizes — some electronic books work on laptops or desktop computers, others are formatted for Kindles or other machines designed just for e-books.4. Long live batteries. The technical difficulty that came up the most in my interviews with students was battery life. Students said they sometimes forgot to charge their laptops overnight, so they had to find a spot in the lecture hall to plug in if they wanted to use their books in class. Other students said they had several classes in a row and inevitably ran out of juice. “It’s harder to take your computer everywhere than a book, I think, because you have to carry the power cord and all,” said Sara Herrera, a freshman whose laptop’s battery typically lasts only about an hour and a half.