Colleges Provide Testing Ground for E-Book Innovations
When librarians at Robert Morris College in Moon Township, Penn., sought volunteers for a research study on using e-books in an undergraduate class, Ashley Hamilton eagerly volunteered to experience what she considers to be an inevitable wave of academic technology.
This semester, Hamilton, a sophomore elementary education major from Westfield, N.Y., has used both her newly purchased Hewlett-Packard laptop and a loaner handheld e-book device, known as the Gemstar e-book, in place of regular books to complete readings for an American literature course. The handheld e-book device, one of four reader units owned by the school library, was loaned out to Hamilton.
“I thought it would be a good idea to give it a try,” she says. “You never know, regular books may become obsolete.”
For the past year, David Bennett, a librarian at Robert Morris College, says he and his staff have studied student adaptation to e-book devices and laptops configured with special reading software. This semester, Bennett and fellow librarians are working with five students, including Hamilton, from Dr. Jay Carson’s course, “Major American Writers” to develop a research database on e-book devices and reading software configured for both laptop and desktop computers.
“We were concerned that e-books would be introduced in academic settings without much research,” Bennett says. Later this month, Bennett will be presenting findings of their research at the annual Educause conference for higher education information technology professionals in Indianapolis.
Around the nation, academic librarians, campus bookstores and faculty members are rolling out e-book devices and reading software to test the viability of the e-book. While the e-book phenomenon has become fairly popular among the general reading audience with Web retailers, such as Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com selling them online, it represents a largely under-tested concept in higher education. And experts don’t foresee e-books replacing printed books in academia as a dominant medium for texts.
In its most basic form, e-books are books that have been converted to computer-readable, digital format. That format allows the content of books to be downloaded into personal computers, laptops or portable handheld reading devices. E-books are also equipped with digital rights protection tools, which often places limits on the availability of a text to be duplicated or transferred from one device to another.
E-books enjoy certain advantages over printed books. Large numbers of them can be stored in computer and reading-device memories, along with supplementary texts such as a dictionary. Large memory storage makes it easier for students to fit their reading in one book-sized device, replacing heavy book bags filled with printed books. Reading devices sometimes double as personal organizers and have multiple functions, such as sound and e-mail capability.
Robert Morris’ Hamilton says that while she preferred reading from the e-book device more than reading from her laptop she doubted that she would actually purchase a reading device. “Unless it was mandated by my school, I probably wouldn’t get one of my own,” she says, acknowledging that she would likely continue to take advantage of the special reading software that was downloaded onto her laptop for the research study.
At issue in the e-book world is the direction digitized books are likely to take given the intense competition among software companies to develop reading software for e-book content and among hardware companies to create easy-to-use handheld reading devices. In higher education, many e-book enthusiasts have awaited the emergence of e-textbooks, but publishing companies have been slow to bring them to market given the arduous task of securing copyright protections.
“I think the e-books need to do well in higher education in order for them to succeed as a market,” says Marilyn Jenkins, president and CEO of CyberRead, an e-bookstore and publisher services company near Seattle.
Despite presenting a challenging market for technology companies, colleges and universities occupy fertile testing ground for e-book innovations.
Given the newness and the fragmentation of the e-book market, technology companies are proceeding cautiously on the higher education book and textbook fronts. “Faculty are trying to determine to what extent they’ll be using e-books in the classrooms,” says Tom Prehn, group manager for e-book business development at Adobe Systems Inc.
For its part, Adobe, a leading publishing software company, has launched eBook U, a partnership between Adobe and a group of 9 schools to explore e-books in the classroom. Prehn says Adobe wants to help faculty members securely create and customize textbooks based on their texts as well as chapters from other published works. The partnership will enable students and faculty to use copyright-protected course materials developed as e-books. The e-books will be based on the graphically rich Adobe® Portable Document Format (PDF).
“(The partnership) is a small research project,” Prehn says.
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