Some Canadian schools turning to e-texts

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Student working on a laptop with books beside

Jonas Hrebeniuk

PAPER PORN AND ELECTRONIC PORN EACH HAVE THEIR ADVANTAGES. HOW CAN I DECIDE? Though it hasn’t reached great popularity yet, some Canadian universities are experimenting with “e-texts” in favour of the traditional paper textbook format.

Feeling stiff from carrying a backpack full of thick, hard-covered textbooks? Those days may soon end, as digital textbooks are now available for purchase through several Canadian universities.

E-textbooks are an alternative to regular textbooks and are viewable on both PC and Mac platforms. While there are some cost and environmental benefits from e-textbooks, the demand has remained low across university campuses.

Debbie Harvie, director of the University of British Columbia book store, believes this market will change substantially over the next few years. E-textbooks have been available at the UBC bookstore since December 2006. However, this term, only seven of the 3,000 books requested by UBC faculty are available as e-textbooks.

The online texts can be difficult to read as they are PDF formats of the original book.

“As students become more comfortable with reading online, e-textbooks will have a higher demand,” Harvie said. “If books were created to be read electronically from the start, it would be easier for students to read them.”

Harvie doesn’t believe e-textbooks will replace all university books, though she said certain subjects can benefit from them.

“In a changing field like the sciences, e-texts can be updated quickly,” she said. “Therefore, it may be more beneficial for students in that field.”

At Western, digital textbooks are available for purchase through the e-Book Store link on The Book Store at Western’s website. Carolyn Young, The Book Store’s communications manger, said although the link has been there for four years, it has been used sparingly.

Last year, The Book Store did a study on e-textbooks with three focus groups. In one group, 12 of the 25 students were interested in digital media. If the price were to be cut in half, 19 students said they were interested.

Young said digital books won’t ever be significantly cheaper than traditional books because of copyright costs. She said the U.S. is far ahead of Canada in terms of copyright legislation.

According to Young, some American universities are experimenting with a program called iChapters, in which professors can assign specific chapters from a book and students can choose to purchase those specific chapters.

Currently, no legislation exists in Canada for digital content, making it difficult to distinguish between what is a legitimate form of text and what isn’t, Young said. Therefore, The Book Store doesn’t want to sell textbooks if they aren’t copyrighted.

“There is a very low profit margin for textbooks,” she said. “Some campus book stores raise the prices on textbooks in order to make a profit. We have chosen not to do that so we can give the students the best prices without incurring a loss to the university.”

“Anything more than five pages I would print out,” said Nadia Ahmed, a fourth-year management and organizational studies student. “Reading anything more on the computer screen is hard on the eyes.”

Jonathan Ruelens, a fourth-year history student, agreed.

“I would absolutely not be interested in purchasing an e-textbook,” he said. “Students, as a group, spend too much time on their computers already.

“A book is the last legitimate form in which we can obtain information.”

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