Interactive and Multimedia Etextbooks Review
There are thousands of etextbook titles currently available from the leading ereader purveyors (think Amazon and Barnes & Noble), that are little different from the traditional ebook format. But a new wave of etextbook providers has been developing applications in concert with textbook publishers with capabilities that go far beyond swiping, searching, highlighting, and annotating. The big emerging thing in etextbook land is learning aids built into or around the digital text that are accessible through a proprietary app or ereader. Early entrants to the field include CourseSmart.com, Kno.com, and Inkling.com.
Etextbook apps and ereaders are still evolving and CourseSmart reviews, Inkling reviews, and Kno reviews by experts and/or students remain sparse. But the potential for etextbooks suffused with social media, multimedia, and interactive learning assists is already clear. The three formats we researched boast unique and common elements. They all let you do everything traditional ereaders do, save you money compared to the list price of a new hard copy, and give you immediate access once you place your order and download the app or ereader. Each also comes with a set of special features that vary from one to another. The app or ereader is free when you buy (Kno.com and Inkling.com) or rent (CourseSmart.com) from the etextbook site.
The new elearning aids are attracting a bit of positive notice. For example, a CourseSmart review at The Textbook Guru lauds the ability to print up to 10 pages at once while retaining your highlights (but not your notes), electronically share notes and highlights with friends, and organize notes and highlights in a side bar. This CourseSmart review also likes the quizzes, homework and problem sets, and the videos and outbound links. A Kno review posted by a student at iTunes says the make-your-own flashcard feature was the key to a high final grade. An expert Kno review commends the 3D effects that are especially valuable for science courses and the journal you can create with all your highlights and notes. Social media features win praise in an Inkling review by the same expert for supporting group learning, as do the pop-up explanations in diagrams, the videos and audios that explain complex ideas and present interviews with experts, and the app's navigational ease.
And yet, some signs indicate that etextbook apps aren't quite ready for prime time. The current catalog of etitles enhanced by interactive, multimedia, and social media tools is smaller than what you'll find in listings of "traditional" etextbooks. Some apps and/or features are only in beta test and others have yet to move from concept to reality. The Kno site, for example, posts a "beta" sign next to a list of special features and a Kno reviewpublished in 2011 reported that the self-quiz tool had lots of kinks and the app sometimes froze and crashed. Also, some app components don't seem sufficiently robust. A CourseSmart review posted by a student notes, among other critiques, that it's nearly impossible to highlight the exact words you're interested in. The Textbook Guru's take on the CourseSmart app includes minor griping about a zoom-in tool that only presents two size options and the presence of special features in a companion "eresources" app rather than being embedded in the text as they are with the Kno and Inkling apps. The latter takes some heat in an Inkling review, also by the same expert, for a restrictive return policy that has no sympathy for buyer's remorse unless a serious problem can be documented; Inkling lets you buy one chapter at a time, however.
Some platform limitations also mark etextbook apps at the present. Kno apps are compatible with the iPad (available through the iTunes store) and Facebook, and there are ereaders for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari browsers; currently, Kno doesn't offer an app for Android devices. CourseSmart offers apps for Apple and Android mobile devices and ereaders for recent versions of Firefox, Safari, and Chrome; offline reading is limited to etextbooks accessed through these browsers or the iPad app. Inkling technology works through an iPad app or Chrome and Safari browsers.
Another challenge facing the etextbook industry as it barrels into the future concerns the potential pushback from students. An etextbook review by PC World notes that many students find reading digitized material for extended periods is more tiring than reading hard copies and that etextbooks, at least in their current iterations, present inherent constraints. Indeed, the review references an etextbook pilot of the Kindle DX conducted by Amazon at seven universities that found students had reservations about the technology: taking notes with the keyboard was problematic, only one text can be viewed at a time, and flipping back and forth within a text was cumbersome.
As for the cost of cutting-edge etextbooks, well -- comparing prices across the etextbook sites we researched is dicey because they don't offer all of the same titles. That said, etextbooks that feature elearning aids are cheaper than new hard copies but more expensive than a used or rental copy.