Viewpoint: Thinking outside the book

eTexts can help students purchase material they need, saving money.

eTextbooks already have triggered what is shaping up to be a seismic upheaval in the way we think about academic course material. Digital materials offer highly mobile, on-demand access to academic texts in formats that allow students to store hundreds of books on a single device.

The physical aspects of this change are, on their own, monumental: Just reducing the volume of paper required to publish a textbook in digital form means that eTexts have the potential to save millions of dollars in shipping, distribution, and—eventually—waste.

Certainly, there are front-end costs in building the devices that allow readers to view eTextbooks, and while these are not negligible (and do indeed produce waste), publishers are gravitating toward a distribution model that eliminates the single-use device, opting instead to make eTextbooks accessible on laptops, tablets, and even smart phones.

Using already active devices means further efficiencies and less fiber in landfills and recycling centers. However, these potential environmental benefits will take years to realize, making this more of a promise than a reality.

At the same time, there are more immediate benefits to eTextbooks that make these materials capable of actually taking the teaching and training process to a new level, especially for instructors engaged in customized, individualized instruction and a more active approach to helping learners to build knowledge and share it with one another—and the world.

Beyond black text on a white page. One of the most obvious benefits of eTextbooks is that they can deliver multimedia-rich content to students. Course materials that connect text, images, audio, video, self-directed quizzes, and interactive components such as simulations might offer reluctant learners several “ways in” to engage with difficult or challenging material.

Using multiple modes for instruction and training provides opportunities to tailor learning in ways that best fit learners’ and instructors’ individual needs. Moreover, when material is broken into modular chunks—as several publishing houses are already doing—eTextbooks can allow students to purchase only the material they need, not necessarily an entire textbook.

Combine this flexibility of content with the easy access that tablets and smart phones provide, and what results is a whole new method of delivery and consumption of information that extends far beyond a paper textbook on a campus bookstore shelf.

Integration with social media also allows students to share achievements and milestones with their classmates, cohorts, and even potential employers.

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