Thursday, October 28, 2010

Save Money, Waste Time

The U.S. Department of Education has some money to throw around, and they've tossed $783,000 to Bellevue College to promote the use of e-textbooks. The idea is to save the students some money.

Bellevue College is pleased to announce that they were the one and only college or university in the nation to make it to the top of the heap. They plan to use the funds to start up a pilot program of e-reader rental that will become self-sustaining. That means they won't have to go back to the Feds and ask for another hand-out.

And don't go thinking that the little Washington school got money to help boost the re-election of Senator Patty Murray.

Just because studies have shown that e-books aren't popular with college students doesn't mean that anyone at the Department of Education is going to not push for the "21st Century Bookstore" concept to be tested anyway.

According to Sandra Aamodt, former editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience, electronic books aren't read in the same way as hard copies. Reading is slower on a screen, and the student can't flip back and forth to check the end notes or study a figure.

There's no writing notes in the margins of an electronic textbook. There is the ability to jump around, to search key words and switch pages with ease, but to Gloria Mark of U.C. Irvine, the e-book is a fountain of distractions.

Hypertext can take a reader away from the topic and off into a link that defines a term  but distracts the reader from the subject matter at hand. What if there's another link embedded in there? It's easy enough to follow it, and before long, the student isn't studying the Great Depression but has discovered a site that lists the most popular songs of 1935.

To Ms. Mark, this all results in a loss of deep thinking. She's concerned that the on-line generation isn't learning how to focus because they're used to navigating their own way rather than stick with the linear thinking that is reading words on paper.

Does Bellevue College worry about the research done to date?

Not at all. They're going to issue e-reading devices to the most needy students so that those with financial difficulties can more readily afford their textbooks. Research indicates that those same students won't get as much out of the material as their more financially sound counterparts. Textbooks aren't novels, they are far more complex and the jury is still out on the ability of student brains to fully process the information.

Bellevue College, then, will use its students as guinea pigs in an experiment that may or may not turn out well. But look on the bright side, Bellevue students. At least you saved money on your textbooks.

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