PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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HIGH-TECH TEXTBOOKS - E-books are on the rise in some classrooms, but the publishing industry is still working the kinks out. By Jo Ellen Myers Sharp


THERE MAY BE a lot of buzz about electronic books, but professors, publishers and bookstores say digital tomes are far from the norm. Some professors are using e-books in their engineering classes and laboratories, but the number is small and varies from campus to campus. Many of their colleagues and publishers are taking a more wait-and-see attitude while the industry gets the bugs out.

The first of those bugs is content. E-books are read or downloaded from a Web site. Students can pay for the e-book at the Web site or buy it through an online retailer or a traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore. What students actually buy is an access code to the online version. For an additional fee, students may also be able to buy a CD-ROM or DVD version. However, the CD may only have an abridged version of the textbook, forcing students to buy a printed copy if they want to use it for reference at a later date.

Access is also an issue, as e-books are available only with a computer. Frequently, there are licensing restrictions on how the online version can be printed. Once a course is over, access to the online content may expire. Also, the content may be available only through the specific computer that registered with the Web site. Portability could be another bug because students must have access to a computer to be able to study.

E-books are not very common in engineering education, says Prasad Enjeti, the Texas Instruments Professor in the department of electrical engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station. In one of his undergraduate classes, Enjeti uses an e-book that's available at no charge through the university's library. "I think our younger generation will easily adopt the e-book concept," he says, especially with hand-held readers.

"Of course, (e-books) are the wave of the future," says Alfred Carlson, a professor of chemical engineering at Rose- Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind. "There are just too many advantages, especially cost, to having e-books available." Carlson, who says he would use e-books in his classes if they were available, says the benefits are huge. "Students can carry all of their 'books' around with them at all times, can search the material more easily, can move through the material using different patterns and, of course, the material should be cheaper," Carlson says. "Another major advantage is publication speed and relevance. Most thermo books either have no new info or outdated or useless material. There are way too many of these books and too few books on special topics."

Access is not a problem, Carlson says, because "everyone has a computer. Look around your office. Only Third World countries do not all have the technology, and this is changing rapidly. No one can keep up without the technology. This is a nonargument."

At least one professor has done away with the expense of buying access or the book by offering his textbook on heat transfer as a free download to anyone, anywhere. John H. Lienhard V, a professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to offer "A Heat Transfer Textbook" in a PDF format at no charge. The book has been downloaded thousands of times, as evidenced by the thank-you's Lienhard has received from students all over the world — from the United States to India to Colombia.

After 20 years and three editions, the publisher decided to stop printing the book, and the copyright reverted to Lienhard and his father and co-author, John H. Lienhard IV. Driven by a sense of altruism, the Lienhards put the book online. What cost $150 before is now free. And the online version is in a format that allows easy updates and changes. "The advantage is definitely with the author, who can turn around to his computer and fix it and instantly put the new version online," Lienhard says.

Work in Progress

DESPITE THE EASE and reduced expense, acceptance of electronic books has been slow. "There's been a lot of media attention to e-books and students thinking they are a cost-effective alternative, but we are not seeing sales or adoption by faculty," says Laura Nakoneczny, director of public relations at the National Association of College Stores in Oberlin, Ohio.

Not all e-books are equal, and there's a struggle between content owners and publishers over what the best model for distribution is, Nakoneczny says. A soon-to-end pilot project on e-book sales at college bookstores may answer some of those questions.

A group of publishers has teamed with distributor MBS Textbook Exchange Inc., in Columbia, Mo., to sell access to digital textbooks for one-third the price of the printed versions. The goal is to assess the market demand, and if the pilot project is successful, similar programs will be rolled out to all of MBS' bookstore clients. Among the 10 schools participating in the project are California State University at Fullerton, West Virginia University and the University of Oregon.

Chris Standish, book distribution manager at the University of Oregon bookstore, says although buying e-books might feel like a gamble because they're so new, he's confident users will like them for their convenience.

But Standish says, at least at the beginning, price will be a big issue. Standish suspects the trial's one-third price discount might not be low enough. "I think to get people to try stuff, you have to make it a really good deal."

Already, the project has had to extend access to the e-books from the five months originally planned to at least a year because of student complaints. Truncated access riles more than students. "E-book content may be turned off, either by a new edition that may discontinue coverage of an outdated topic or through licensing restrictions," says Barrett S. Caldwell, an associate professor of industrial engineering and director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium at Purdue University. "That's a real problem since I refer to old content in a variety of ways, even after years or decades. I have trouble with publishers forcing people to pay for content and then cutting off access. For engineers, old textbooks are important references to refresh knowledge." Both of the texts Caldwell uses in his engineering statistics classes this semester have e-book capabilities.

"There is a trend toward e-book publishing on the part of the publishers, who are trying to evolve their formats to accommodate purchaser and user needs and desires," says Susan Spilka, director of corporate communications at John Wiley & Sons Inc., in Hoboken, N.J. "The trend, however, has not as yet reflected itself in dramatic increases in e-book sales for scientific and technical books, other than by libraries."

But Pam Goodman, a spokeswoman for Follett Corp., which owns or operates 720 bookstores in the United States and Canada, says they're on the upswing. "We've not seen a lot of tracks yet with e-books, although they are a growing mechanism for providing course content to students." Still, she says, Follett recently developed a new corporate group to explore e-books along with other electronic formats, such as electronic or digital libraries.

"In the last few years, people have been more sensible about what e-books can and can't do, and there's less overglamorizing," says David Blakesley, an associate professor of English and director of the professional writing program at Purdue. Blakesley also owns Parlor Press LLC, which publishes e-books. With e-books, students can search and highlight material, write in the margins and even turn down the corner of a page. E-books mix video and interactive elements that allow everything from visual demonstration of laboratory experiments to quizzes. "They definitely are different than paper books, and each has its advantages," Blakesley says. "E-books are here to stay."

Jo Ellen Myers Sharp is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.


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