E-Text Survivor

I made it through an e-text course! This month, I completed my first?and last?e-text course for my AU degree.

I wasn’t looking forward to e-text. Like I wrote in E-text Initiation last November, I chose courses with real text whenever possible, avoiding or delaying courses that had been converted to e-text.

Now I’ve made it through one course, NUTR 331 Nutrition for Health, with e-text. The e-text for that course used the VitalSource Bookshelf program. I chose not to buy the paper textbook so I could give e-text a chance to impress me. Following are a few observations from my experience.

Some e-text features initially seemed cool, until I had to work with them. For example, when I copied bits of text into my notes, the e-text supplied bibliographic info. Great! A page number every time! However, the bibliographic info was either fully on (the full citation including title, author, publisher, more suitable for a works cited/bibliography page) or fully off (not even a page number.) If an e-text is going to provide this feature, it would be more useful if the user could customize it according to their preference.

Another feature that could have been cool but wasn’t was the audio reading feature. I can imagine students with long commutes listening to their textbooks in a car or the subway. However, the reader read exactly what was on the page, exactly how it was laid out. That meant breaking off in mid-sentence to read from a graphic illustration or chart, simply because That’s how it was placed on the page. The automaton-like reader also diligently read the footer notes off every page?including the chapter title and two lines of copyright information.

Other aspects were just perplexing. Why can’t I navigate to the next page with my keyboard’s right arrow? I had to use my mouse to click on the next page indicator, which was a right-arrow symbol. Eventually I realized I could use my down arrow to advance pages—some of the time—but I found that inconsistent with other online publications and the markings of the e-text itself. Then there was the highlighter tool which provided three stock colours?pale, sickly shades of yellow, green, or blue?but I found it cumbersome to switch between colours.

E-text pages?at least for this course?were oriented as though they were paper texts. That meant that the e-text page was portfolio, while my computer monitor is landscape. I couldn’t see one full page on my screen, so I constantly had to shift the display to continue reading, especially on pages with the text arranged in columns.

Part of the problem seems to be that e-text publishers haven’t gotten over real texts. The text for my course appeared to be laid out the same as a paper text. But e-texts don’t function like paper texts. In the rush to produce e-texts, publishers seem to have skipped some steps in the design process. Perhaps e-texts five years from now will have a form that matches their function.

At a personal level, I found the e-text a strain on my eyes. Even after adjusting the page size I had difficulty reading with the ease I get from a real text. Because I wear progressive bifocals, reading dense text off a screen means holding my head at an uncomfortable angle so I can read through the lower part of my lenses. And if I was tired, my eyes just weren’t up to the added strain of reading off a screen.

The best thing I did to improve my e-text experience was to buy a larger monitor. Having a 22-inch monitor to work with instead of my laptop’s dinky 14-inch made the e-text tolerable. Although I didn’t buy the monitor specifically to help with my e-text?although I note doing so was cheaper than purchasing the hard-copy text?having a larger screen substantially improved the e-text experience. Not only could I see more of the e-text page at once, but I could have both the e-text and my notes open on the screen at the same time. I also had the option of using dual screens for greater flexibility.

While I recognize there are some conveniences associated with e-text, for me the drawbacks don’t outweigh the benefits. Thankfully, this is the only course I have to take with an e-text. I need a few more courses to complete my degree, and so far none of those courses feature e-text. It was interesting to try one but I’m not in a hurry to repeat the experience.

I gave e-text a chance, but the experience has just confirmed my opinion that paper text is better, at least for me. Instead of being an e-text convert, I consider myself an e-text survivor.

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