Monday, August 10, 2009

Virtual textbooks turning the page on education for students

The sound of students flipping through textbook pages may soon be a thing of the past.

Instead, university and college students may be using their index fingers to silently scroll through virtual textbooks they've downloaded to their iPod Touch or iPhone .

They will highlight with a swish and make notes with a few taps, thanks to a new application available through the iTunes store.

More than 7,000 post-secondary textbooks from 12 large publishers - including John Wiley & Sons Inc., McGraw Hill Higher Education and Nelson Education - can now be downloaded though CourseSmart LLC for about half the cost of the printed versions.

The textbooks cover courses offered in Canada and the United States.

"Textbooks right now are very much a print business, but more and more students are aware that they have a choice," said Frank Lyman, executive vice-president of CourseSmart.

"I don't think it's the end of the print textbook business. But for a lot of students out there, this is a better way to learn and study, and it's a better fit for their lifestyle.

"It really is taking off very broadly."

CourseSmart, created in 2007 by a handful of publishers, already has hundreds of thousands of users throughout North America.

Students subscribe to the service, paying a fee to access digital textbooks through their laptops and cellphones.

With the addition of the free iTunes app, which went live late Sunday night, CourseSmart subscribers can now also use their portable Apple touch-screen devices.

"We think it's safe to say most of the core textbooks are available," said Lyman.

While Lyman wouldn't disclose exact figures, he said the California-based company's sales are up 600 per cent over the same period in 2008.

The digital textbooks look exactly the same as their print counterparts, with charts, graphs and page numbers intact, so students don't get lost when directed to specific sections.

Nicholas Osborne, a fourth-year computer science student at Ottawa's Carleton University, said he'd consider switching to digital textbooks, especially since he's now paying between $50 and $200 a textbook.

The iPhone owner said he already uses the device for "pretty much everything. In some ways it has replaced a lot of my computer use. I use it for music, e-mail, browsing, Twitter, Facebook, organizing my life with calendars," he said.

"I like the format of a physical book - being able to write notes on the pages, having diagrams, charts - I'm not sure how these would translate into an iPhone version, but given that in many of my courses textbooks are something I only reference a couple of times per term, it certainly would be a worthwhile sacrifice."

McGill University Prof. Morton Mendelson said he wouldn't be surprised if his students took to virtual textbooks.

"People my age, of course, like to read a book, like to hold a book," said Mendelson, the Montreal university's deputy provost for student life and learning.

"Students will be using the technology available to them, and that will change as time passes."

Mendelson also noted the digitized books are a greener way of viewing course material. "University students are so intent on raising environmental issues," he said.

The key question, he said, is "does it benefit learning?

"Students have a wide variety of learning styles, so students have to find out what works better for their learning styles."

Lyman said post-secondary institutions have been positive about the transfer of texts to the digital format.

"Most institutions are accepting that (students) want a variety of ways to access their materials," he said. "It's at an early stage and it will be interesting to see how many institutions take a proactive approach."

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