E-readers, E-books Represent Future for Community College

After piloting e-readers and e-books in the classroom, Houston Community College Southwest decided they were ready for prime time.

by Tanya Roscorla / January 20, 2011 0
A student uses a Kindle in class at Houston Community College Southwest. | Photo courtesy of Doug Rowlett

After piloting e-readers and e-books in the classroom, Houston Community College Southwest decided the digital tools were ready for prime time this semester. And in the future, they're the way to go for this campus.

“Faculty want these devices, students are intrigued by them and are using them, and generally the response is positive to the device," said Doug Rowlett, instructional design coordinator for the Southwest campus.

With the Chancellor's Innovation Grant, Rowlett placed more than 200 e-readers in students' hands. Between fall 2009 and 2010, faculty members and about 350 students tested the Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad and enTourage eDGe. They also tested e-books to see how they would work in the classroom.

“These were new, everyone was talking about them, and they seemed like they would be a natural for the classroom."

And they have been. But the same device and price doesn't work for everyone, as the pilot results showed. Keep reading to find out what the community college discovered during the pilot.

Faculty members in different subject areas prefer different e-readers

In the humanities, faculty said the Kindle worked the best. In the sciences, iPads fit the bill. And in developmental classes, faculty preferred the eDGe.

Rowlett thought the English teachers would be all over the iPad, but they actually preferred the Kindle. In their classes, students primarily read books, and with the iPads, they didn't stay on task. Instead of reading, they checked their e-mail, surfed the Web and watched videos.

But science demands full color, interactivity and video to bring images and concepts to life. And that's where the iPad shines. 

In developmental classes, instructors like the eDGe because it allows English language learners to improve their speaking by listening to audio files.They also use a stylus to take notes on the touchscreen, write a journal, watch movies, surf the web and read on the e-ink reading screen.

“It does everything the other devices won’t do, but consequently, you can’t just sit down in class the first day and learn how to use it.”

The eDGe has potential, but the interface needs to simpler so students can be productive quickly.

And the other devices also have drawbacks. The Kindle can't print, project or browse the Web well.

The iPad can't print from the old version of the software, and while the new version allows printing to a new type of printer, few people have that printer. The iPad also can't project, which causes teachers to become upset because they want to plug it in and show students how to do different things.

“None of the devices are perfect, but they all work well at what they’ve been designed to do. And so we’re finding that this is going to be the future as far as we’re concerned.”

E-books, e-readers represent the future

But that future won't be device specific.

Rowlett submit a list of the devices that the college has tested and proven to work well in the classroom to the board. Then he'll leave it up to instructors to decide which devices they want students to use. As new devices come out, the college will test them and add them to the list if they work well.

As for the e-books, humanities classes could supply material to students for less than $20 because so much literature was in the public domain. With so much early American literature in the public domain online, why would you buy a Norton Anthology of Literature for $70?

But while some e-books were significantly lower, others cost over $100. And students balked at that.

In a chemistry course pilot, students rebelled because the e-book cost $101 on Amazon, and the paper version cost $175. For a $100, they would rather have something in their hands that was tangible.

But biology was a different story. The e-book was $60, and the paper version was $130. Somewhere between $60 and $100, the college students don't want to pay for an e-book.

Students score higher with e-books, e-readers

In the biology classes, students take standard entrance and exit exams, and the college compared classes that scored the same on the entrance exams. In the class with e-books and e-readers, students scored 15 to 17 points better than students in the traditional textbook class. And that's significant because those numbers could represent the difference between a C and B or a B and A.

The newness of the tools may have drawn more students to use them, which therefore increased their scores. Rowlett would like to expand the study in the future to see whether the higher scores will be sustainable down the road when the novelty of the tools has worn off.

E-readers hold up over time

During the study, the college also wanted to see whether the devices were robust enough to withstand use in the classroom. Out of the 200 devices, only five were damaged enough to be replaced, and that damage mostly came from being dropped. They didn't have any devices fail.

In order to get the devices back once the pilot finished, the college told students it would hold their grades until they were returned.

E-books save students money

One of the hurdles the college will have to overcome is getting financial aid to pay for the cost of the devices. This semester, faculty members signed up on waiting lists to check out sets of devices. But later, students will need to purchase them if they're required for courses. And currently, financial aid at the state and federal level is leary about paying for them.

Rowlett encourages faculty members to use e-books and content freely available in the public domain as much as possible because of the traditional textbook prices. The college already has started requiring textbook publishers to offer digital and e-book versions of a text alongside a traditional paper textbooks so that instructors have a choice.

Many students say they can't afford the textbooks for their classes, and as a result, they don't do well in them. But with e-readers and e-books, they could save money.

And they could also maximize their time. One student said she struggled to find the time to read. But with the audio feature of the Kindle, she listens while she makes dinner for her family or works out.

If students bought a device the first semester, and their e-books cost 50 percent or less than the paper version, they would break even the first semester. The second semester, they would start saving money, and that's what students are excited about.

"Our students are struggling just to keep their noses above water, and if you can save ’em 50 percent or better on the cost of their textbook, they’re all over it.”