The E-Text Sex Question

Did you know that your attitude toward e-textbooks could be partly determined by sex? That’s one of the findings AU student Kenneth Desson reports in his graduate thesis, “Attitudes to E-Textbooks Among Mid-Career Learners”. You can read Kenneth’s thesis on The Landing.

In his thesis, Desson finds that “women were found to be statistically significantly more likely to hold negative attitudes towards e-textbooks than men.” While Desson states further study is needed to confirm this, he suggests that women may need more support?and different kinds of support?to help them adapt to e-textbooks. Sex, however, isn’t the only?or even the most significant?factor that determines attitudes toward e-textbooks.

The purpose of Desson’s study was to answer the question: “For mid-career learners enrolled in online graduate courses, how are attitudes to and engagement with e-textbooks shaped by the circumstances in which e-textbook use takes place?”

Desson undertook research and conducted student surveys and interviews for his study of e-textbooks. Although Desson focused on graduate students, he plans to conduct further research to see if undergraduate students hold similar opinions.

Whether students like or dislike e-textbooks depends on the structure of the e-textbook itself, the type of reading device a student uses, and the attitude the student’s tutor has toward e-textbooks, among other factors.

Among his conclusions, Desson finds that the structure of the e-textbook was a factor in how well students adapted to it. Students surveyed for Desson’s thesis express frustration with e-textbooks that can only be read online, or ones that do not permit printing except for short sections. Students also notice a lack of consistency in e-textbooks: some are adapted from paper texts to PDFs while others are designed specifically for e-devices. Students find some PDF texts frustrating due to inconsistent pagination and incompatible sizing between page and screen. On the plus side, students prefer e-textbooks for their portability and their text-search capabilities, as well as the multimedia extras offered in some e-textbooks.

Desson’s study shows that “the e-reading device used is definitely a factor in the experience of using an e-textbook.” However, Desson finds that, so far, there isn’t one device that suits all students?and all e-textbooks?in all situations. Desktop and laptop users enjoy quicker download speed for downloadable e-textbooks, but tablet and e-reader uses enjoy greater portability. E-reader devices are found to be easiest to read, but aren’t compatible with all e-textbook software.

Desson didn’t have enough data to make firm conclusions about the benefit of tutor support but states that what he did have “strongly hinted at the need for increased instructor guidance in support of e-textbook use.” The few respondents to Desson’s survey who indicate they had received adequate guidance from their instructor on how to use the e-textbook were more likely to be positive about all aspects of using them. While there could be many factors at play, Desson cites earlier studies that showed “efforts by instructors to inform their students about the use of e-textbooks were identified as key predictors of positive attitudes towards e-texts.”

Among other factors that influence students’ attitudes towards e-textbooks, Desson highlights cost and accessibility as major considerations. Students bear additional costs if they have to purchase a device suitable for reading e-textbooks, or if they have to also purchase a hardcopy text, for example. Students were also concerned with time-limited licenses on some e-textbooks, which denied them use of their course text after a certain period of time. Desson states that “a deliberate strategy by universities to choose only the best available e-textbooks and to insist on perpetual licenses would go a long way towards making them more acceptable to mid-career learners.”

Most students in Desson’s survey report that they feel they learn less?absorb less information?from e-textbooks. However, whether that is a function of the e-textbook itself, the circumstances surrounding its use, or the students’ attitude requires further study, Desson says.

E-textbooks are still a developing technology. While some of their benefits, like portability, searchability, and environment-friendly composition are immediately obvious, many students resist the transition to e-textbooks. I am one such student. Is it because I’m a woman? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

When I contacted Desson about his thesis, he said, “To me, the most surprising finding was that, among the mid-career graduate students who participated in my study, women were so much more likely than men to dislike e-textbooks. Follow-up research is needed to confirm that finding and to explore what factors might be at work.” Desson went on to surmise that “the finding may, in part, have been a result of some frankly dreadful e-textbooks encountered by the female nursing students who responded. When e-textbooks are simple PDF page-turners suitable for viewing only on a desktop screen (i.e. don’t automatically reformat to accommodate viewing on tablets or smartphones)?and when user licenses make them no longer accessible after as little as six months?who wouldn’t dislike them?”

For myself, I can’t say that I dislike e-texts. I am still resisting them and avoiding courses that have switched to e-texts. I’m confident I will enjoy the searchability aspect of e-texts, and maybe their portability. I’m less confident that I’ll enjoy extensive reading off a screen (I had difficulty reading Desson’s thesis, in PDF, on my laptop’s screen, and his thesis was shorter than a textbook.)

Despite my resistance, I found Desson’s thesis informative, interesting, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of numerous comments from participating AU students on their experiences?good and bad?with e-textbooks. After reading Desson’s thesis, do I feel more favourably inclined toward e-texts? Not much. What his thesis did make me realize is that e-textbook publishing technology is still evolving and has a long way to go before they put regular old books out of business.

Read Kenneth Desson’s thesis, “Attitudes to E-Textbooks Among Mid-Career Learners”, on The Landing. Login with your AU student number for access.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario. Follow Barbara on twitter @ThereGoesBarb.

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