Can E-Readers Replace Textbooks? Your Mileage May Vary…

In a generous (if perhaps futile) attempt to get me to stop buying so many physical books, my family chipped in to purchase a Nook Simple Touch for my birthday. Upon first inspection, the device seemed perfect for me. It is light, has an intuitive interface (to turn a page, I just swipe my finger across it), and has plenty of space for books. It also lets me add pdf documents and books from Adobe Digital Reader, which I thought would be extremely helpful given the amount of reading I need to do for school.

Several weeks into Nook ownership, I am still fond of the device, but there are definite pros and cons to using it (or almost any e-reader or tablet computer) for scholarly use. Here are the highlights and lowlights of my experience so far:

The Highlights:
  • Portability – For anyone who has had to lug numerous textbooks around, an e-reader can seem like a godsend. At less than half a pound, the Nook was easy to take anywhere. If you have multiple classes on one day and no time (or energy) to run back and forth to your dorm room, then an e-reader could be a space and weight saver. As an added bonus, as long as you have your e-reader with you, you don’t have to experience the horror of getting to class only to realize that you left the book on your desk across campus.
  • Affordability – In some cases, electronic books are cheaper than their print counterparts when they are available. Some vendors also allow you to rent the electronic versions of the book for a set amount of time, saving you time and money, as well as the inconvenient of having to physically return your books at the end of the semester.
  • Immediate Access – Most e-readers allow users to connect to the internet either through a 3G or a wireless network in order to purchase books. For students who switch classes at the last minute and need the textbook ASAP (or discover the night before that they need a copy of a book for an 8:00 am class), this can be a great option since they could get their books in seconds rather than days or weeks.
  • Customization Options – These devices allow readers to customize the look of the digital print. For instance, the Nook lets you choose from five different fonts and seven different print sizes. It also gives you three different choices for line spacing and margin settings. Also, there are less extensive options for documents like pdfs and books purchased electronically from other vendors. Tablet computers, such as the iPad, give you even more options and often include extras, such as interactive graphs and videos, that add to the reading experience and your understanding of the topic.
The Lowlights:
  • Note Takers Beware – Many e-readers and all tablets allow you to highlight and take notes within the text. However, depending on your device, this can be a tricky and imprecise venture. For the Nook, the highlighting and note taking features are very frustrating. Despite the touch screen interface, it is very difficult to control precisely what you want to highlight, and taking notes is a time-consuming effort. I also missed the physical interaction using highlighters and Post Its has. Looking at my list of electronically highlighted items isn’t nearly as satisfying to me as seeing dozens of little flags poking out of a work I have just annotated.
  • Lost in Translation – Dedicated e-readers that use e-ink technology that mimics the look of physical pages are easier to read for long periods of time than computer screens. However, they are best used for books that are primarily text. Pictures, graph, and even different fonts and characters don’t always show up correctly on the screen, leading to lots of frustration and confusion.
  • Distractions, Distractions – There is a definite downside to carrying your entire library around on an e-reader. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, the idea that you can reread your favorite book again rather than studying 100 pages in your history textbook proves just too tempting. This can be even worse with a tablet computer, where you can access the internet, email, apps, and other programs.
  • Book Availability Can Vary – People thinking that an e-reader or tablet can take the place of buying any physical textbooks could be in for a very rude awakening when they receive the syllabi from their classes. While electronic books are becoming more prevalent, many books and texts are not available in electronic form yet. Furthermore, some professors have specific editions of the texts they want you to use, so downloading any version of a book might not be the best course of action.
  • The Price Isn’t Always Right – Although we note that some electronic books are cheaper than their physical counterpart, there are numerous exceptions to this rule. Many e-textbooks still have considerable price tag. When coupled with many of the other issues that can come with electronic textbooks and the fact that you can’t sell or lend many e-books, saving $20 right away might not be worth the trouble in the long run.
What are your thoughts on electronic textbooks versus physical textbooks? Are you planning to use a Kindle, Nook, or iPad for most of your textbook needs this semester? Sound off here or on our Facebook page.

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