Not everyone ready for the digital textbook revolution

Nine out of 10 students said they would recommend the Kindle as a "personal reading device."
Nine out of 10 Darden School of Business students said they would recommend the Kindle as a "personal reading device," though only 2 of 10 would recommend it for class readings.

Don’t let the iPhones and BlackBerries fool you: Research and a recent pilot program that put eReaders in college students’ hands suggest that most students aren’t ready to read their textbooks electronically, despite the proliferation of internet-ready mobile devices on campuses nationwide.

In fact, 74 percent of students surveyed by the National Association of College Stores (NACS), a nonprofit trade organization representing 3,000 campus retailers, preferred printed textbooks for their college classes.

The study, released May 25, also found that more than half of college students surveyed on 19 campuses said they “were unsure about purchasing digital textbooks or would not consider buying them even if they were available.”

Laura Cozart, a research manager for NACS, said the overwhelming preference for traditional textbooks was “not surprising,” because “every new innovation takes time before the mainstream population embraces it.”

NACS member stores offering digital educational content that can be accessed on eReader devices reported that eBooks make up 2 to 3 percent of their sales. Cozart said that figure could jump to 15 percent by 2012, as eBook manufacturers make their content more interactive and faculty become accustomed to electronic texts.

Students’ reluctance to embrace digital books doesn’t mean they’re not reading other content on their web-ready mobile devices. Forty-one percent of students said they “regularly” access reading materials from the BlackBerries, iPhones, and similar devices, according to the NACS survey.

Meanwhile, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business announced May 11 that faculty members and students preferred printed textbooks over electronic versions after a pilot program with the Amazon Kindle DX.

When asked if they would recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming business school student, nearly eight in 10 respondents said “no,” according to a university release. A different question solicited a much more positive result: When asked if they would recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming student “as a personal reading device,” nine out of 10 respondents said “yes.”

Sixty-two Darden students were randomly selected to participate in the Kindle pilot, according to the university.

“You must be highly engaged in the classroom every day,” said Michael Koenig, the business school’s director of MBA operations who headed the pilot program. He added that the Kindle is “not flexible enough. … It could be clunky. You can’t move between pages, documents, charts, and graphs simply or easily enough, compared to the paper alternatives.”

Many of the Darden students’ experiences mirrored those of Princeton University students who piloted the Kindle DX in three classes last fall.

Princeton students and faculty who were surveyed after that school’s pilot program ended said they appreciated the portability of the Kindle DX, and the fact that it greatly reduced the printing and photocopying they did for their courses. But they said they missed the ability to highlight text directly, take notes, and flip back and forth through pages of their textbook easily.

Not every Darden student rejected the popular Amazon eReader, Koenig said. A group of “power users” used the Kindle DX to prepare for class by reading assigned chapters from course textbooks. But once in the classroom, most students turned to traditional notes and paper texts, according to the pilot results.

A Darden spokeswoman said the school could not comment further on the Kindle DX pilot, because the school is “in negotiations” with an undisclosed eReader company.

The skepticism toward eBooks on college campuses was countered last fall in a study released by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), which advocate for affordable electronic textbooks in higher education.

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