Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Will eBooks Impact Education in Psychology?

Cost and convenience are seductive, but do other things matter?

In a previous entry, I discussed the place of physical (I hate having to write that adjective) or "classic" (worse still) paper books in my educational life and that of my students. Yet, you don't have to be Nostradamus to know the publishing game is changing in that electronic or "eBooks" are becoming increasingly popular with readers, some of whom are students and faculty members. What does the increasing presence of eBooks mean for education in psychology?

Let's cut to the chase: What are the pros of eBooks? Critics tout several. First is sheer cost: eBooks are simply cheaper to produce. I have a feeling our old friend "supply and demand" is at work here, coupled with novelty-perhaps prices will creep up once eBooks seriously outpace the production of paper books (thank you, invisible hand). But cost is a big deal for college students, and access to cheaper eBooks may well be a good thing in general.

What else? Well, you can carry your books with you on whatever eReader you have available with ease. Portability leads to mobility—eBooks won't cause backaches because the Nook, Kindle, and iPad are light to tote in a bag or backpack. Talk about a moveable academic feast!

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And you can search an eBook for a term or a phrase with a few taps on its keyboard. Yes, bound books have a table of contents and an index (psychology textbooks often have an index for terms and another for authors' names), so locating an idea or quote is a few keystrokes away. Some eReaders even allow users to underline (i.e., highlight) key passages, which is much less messy than those cumbersome yellow magic markers of yore (no doubt students will still over highlight material rather than being more focused or selective about content).

Some publishers allow students to rent eBooks-here on your eReader for a semester and then gone, that is, no longer accessible once finals are over. That sounds like a good thing, as rented books usually are also cheaper than purchased downloads, but what if you end up liking the book? True confession: As you might guess, I was loath to sell back my books at the end of the term when I was a student. I kept those I liked or loved—I still have some of them—but I am guessing I was (am) in the minority on this issue.

Oh, and eBooks are safe from "disasters." Big deal—so your copy of The Interpretation of Dreams can always be retrieved from the cloud. One can always go to the library or the bookstore to obtain another copy, too. I'm not sure the "survivalist" argument for eBooks is all that compelling.

But I did not come to this entry to bury paper books—I still want to praise them. Here we go: Physical books have heft and history. I like to have and to hold my copy of Obedience to Authority from my college days, just as I like to see my sophomoric comments in the margin—as my understanding of behavior has become broader with age (rest assured, I think more clearly now than at 19), my handwriting has worsened (something my students tell me all the time—still, nice to know my older books reinforce the message—and yes, I can still translate most of my earlier chicken scratch marginalia).

My paper books don't require batteries or recharging (yipes—does that sound too antediluvian?) and, if forced, I can read them by candlelight as I did back in early November 2011 when our power was out for 3 days. And I like to enjoy the jacket design (if there is one) of paper books, and to experience the layout—yes, these things are also visible on eBooks but reader, they are not tactile there (to me, anyway). Paper books don't cause a lot eye strain, either, whereas staring at a screen-no matter its illumination—is not good for most of us (said the man with bifocals necessitated by close reading and writing on computers).

What about eBooks and students? I worry that ease and convenience won't make them read the electronic copy anymore than it motivates some of them to read bound paper works. And having an eBook accessible on a smart phone or iPad (HOW CONVENIENT!) does not control incessant Googling, email checking, Facebooking, and the like. A priori, electronic devices breed distraction. Motivation to do work has to be present, and I worry that the cost and convenience of eBooks will conspire to bring out the worst habits (or at least not enhance the positive traits) of many students. They will be no better, and possibly a little worse, off than before. But eBooks are by no means canaries in collegiate coal mines—as a colleague of mine is fond of pointing out, once upon a time slates and their academic progeny, blackboards, were seen as corrupting educational practices and student learning—and yet I am writing this and you are reading it.

What about eBooks in my life? Well, I am not a Luddite. I have an iPad and I do keep eBooks on it. I find myself reading these books when I travel—the convenience of not having to lug a book on the plane is a great. But here's the rub: I find I read these eBooks only occasionally when I am at home. I apparently still prefer the heft of printed books when I settle into my armchair. And the books I've downloaded to my iPad are pleasure reading, not work related. I have no psychology books on my iPad, only novels and some humorous nonfiction.

My high school-aged daughter has a Nook, which she loves. An avid reader, she, too, only uses it for pleasure reading (although she could download works she is reading for her English class on it, I don' believe she has done so yet, anyway). Perhaps course readings, including eTextbooks, will inhabit her Nook when she goes off to college in a couple years. Perhaps.

In the end, the choice to use eBooks will fall to the individual student's decision and the impact—maybe influence is a better word—of the marketplace. Still, I believe that students need to reflect on how this choice may affect what and how well they learn, which is really the only thing that matters.

 

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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