James Madison University

E-textbooks Effectiveness Studied

PHOTO: Student using e-reader equipmentEach new semester begins with a flurry of textbook purchases, price-comparisons, protests, rentals and returns. Concern for textbook costs has risen as steadily as the prices, but readers who reach for electronic textbooks to save money could end up costing themselves more time for the same grade.

Although busy students don’t analyze the effectiveness of their reading habits, psychology professors Drs. David Daniel and Krisztina Jakobsen know that the medium used for a textbook impacts its effectiveness as a learning tool. Daniel and Jakobsen were intrigued by the e-textbook trend because despite the hype, it remains unproven as a suitable replacement for traditional textbooks.

Until recently there were no data to evaluate if students learn as well from e-textbooks, despite the push from publishers, legislators, and others to adopt them.

So how do students read e-textbooks differently from the familiar paper textbooks? If the new trend in textbooks is moving them to computer screens, the switch could have negative consequences as many suggest that people skim more, process more shallowly, and may retain less information when reading online, Daniel said.

To figure out where the differences between monitor and manuscript lie, Daniel and Jakobsen conducted a study last fall funded by a $10,000 grant from Cengage Learning. By combining his pedagogy research with her analysis of visual attention, they hoped to explore how students read e-textbooks compared to traditional textbooks.

The most acclaimed feature of e-textbooks is their affordability. For example, a psychology professor teaching an introductory course could assign the textbook Introduction to Psychology by Rod Plotnik and Haig Kouyoumdjian. At the time this article was written, a hardcover version of the book on Amazon costs $144 and a used paperback version is $95, but the Kindle edition sells for $88. The comparison makes e-textbooks a deceptively appealing choice.

“E-textbooks are good for publishers because they can recoup their investment and maximize profits – no need for the buyback process or used book sales to feather the nest of campus bookstores either,” Daniel said. “It is essentially an economic argument, even by legislators.”

This makes lower-income students especially vulnerable to the pitch, he added, because students with less money or those who have less time to devote to their studies are being encouraged to use inferior products.

Despite these concerns, Daniel’s previously published findings reveal that students do not like e-textbooks and even when they are offered one for free, they are likely to buy the paper book also. This agrees with a survey conducted in August 2008 by Student Public Interest Research Groups, in which 75 percent of student respondents said they preferred a printed textbook to a digital version, and 60 percent said would buy a low-cost print copy even if the digital book were free.

He also found that students greatly prefer paper textbooks, even if they have had previous experience with e-textbooks. So why are e-books so popular while e-textbooks aren’t?  The readers’ goals are different: Individuals reading an e-book for enjoyment aren’t required to pass a comprehension-based test afterward. While they found that learning is possible from both formats, learning from e-textbooks takes longer and requires more effort to reach the same level of understanding, even in a controlled lab environment. At home, students report taking even more time to read e-textbooks as well as higher rates of muti-tasking (e.g., Facebook, electronic chat, texting, email, etc.) than do their peers using printed textbooks.  Simply transferring the printed page into PDF format may add a layer of processing associated with reading from a computer screen as well as be more convenient access to distractions. Compared to print textbooks, e-textbooks are fairly inefficient. 

Daniel’s previous results also showed that students are not likely to use the added multimedia features that make some-textbooks interactive. The links to these modules are typically imbedded within the text, but students generally want to finish the reading first. Those reading e-textbooks were more likely to skip embedded multimedia and hyperlinks than they would if they used a free website connected to the printed textbook.

Beginning in late September the duo and their students employed eye-tracking technology, which shows patterns of how a reader looks at a page of text and generates heat maps to show how long or often the reader fixates on a section. To analyze how the book format effects comprehension, the study used student subjects who were taking a college psychology course for the first time and tested their knowledge after they read chapters from an introductory psychology textbook, either from a paper book or a from an exact PDF copy on a computer screen.

A camera embedded within the monitor tracked the readers’ pupils as they scanned the pages, calculating where students looked and for how long, to record a path of where they focused, paused or doubled back while reading. By watching this movement over the page, “you can measure every eye movement they make,” Jakobsen said, explaining that she and Daniel could tell if a student read a paragraph or followed instructions in the text to look at a graph or read a caption. In their preliminary findings, the scanning pattern produced when the student read a textbook showed consistent reading from line to line down the page. But the scanning pattern from reading on the screen was less intense.

“Although it takes longer, we found out that students can score the same reading comprehension as with a paper book, but interact differently than with print,” Jakobsen said. “Some evidence suggests that people skim web pages while they read, picking out a line then skimming down the page and picking out another in a pattern that reads like a giant E or F down the page.” This method is ineffective for studying because too much information gets lost, causing the reader to have to reread sections as they check for understanding. Their results found an interaction between the page formatting and the way people read, as well as the possibility that reading level is related to different reading styles. Poorly skilled readers may have an even more difficult time in this medium, but that has yet to be fully explored.

“Reading and studying are different activities for many students, and we should be designing products that recognize that,” Jakobsen said. “When they are reading they want to finish reading and when they are studying they go straight for key words and tutorials because they want to review,” Daniel added.

Daniel and Jakobsen argue that the information dense textbooks characteristic of natural and social science subjects are not a good fit for current e-textbooks, but there are exceptions for subjects like chemistry and math that include doing formulas and other activities. The liability, Daniel emphasizes, comes when math and chemistry teachers hope their students will learn the explanations, not just the formulas, “Students tend to skip the text and go straight to the formulas, especially if they are graded.”

“Publishers can’t change the way people read online,” Daniel said, “but they can find new ways to format e-textbooks to make them more effective for how students learn best and prefer to interact with the product. We believe that science can help guide this process toward the development of more effective learning tools for all students.”