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E-textbooks clicking with colleges

Most greet e-books with enthusiasm, but wariness remains

Professor Michael Ruiz's online textbook contains notes, movies of his experiments, and grade calculators. He also can continually update the text as new discoveries are made.
Professor Michael Ruiz's online textbook contains notes, movies of his experiments, and grade calculators. He also can continually update the text as new discoveries are made.  

By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- It's 4 a.m., the astronomy homework is due in just a few hours, and there's still confusion about some quirks in those mysterious quasars. What's a fretting college student to do?

If you're in professor Michael Ruiz's astronomy class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, your answer may be just a few clicks away, in an online forum that every student in the class can access, 24-7.

"If you don't understand something it's nice to be able to ask another student without wandering the halls knocking on doors saying, 'Do you take astronomy? Do you take astronomy?' Just type it in the forum, and ask your question about stars or nebulae," said Margaret Eason, who is taking the class this semester.

CNN's Ann Kellan reports on how e-books are advantageous for some, while others don't think they are worth the trouble (August 30)

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What makes Michael Ruiz's e-texbook work? Check out some of the features. 

The student forum is one of dozens of interactive and multimedia features in the electronic textbook written and produced by astronomy and physics professor Ruiz. Along with his academic credentials, he's an accomplished musician, and a veteran experimenter in all types of technology.

All three of those interests contribute to the interactivity of his online texts, filled with music, movies, experiments, and incentives. He's also created an e-book for his physics of sound class, filled with online videos of his own piano and keyboard performances.

Fast updates, around-the-clock access

Ruiz's electronic texts are Internet-based. Students access the class Web site on a with a login and password.

What do students and officials have to say? 
Redd Horrocks, Clayton College and State University, Ga.
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Monique Paulk, Clayton College and State University, Ga.
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Christopher Ansaldo, UNC - Asheville
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Allen Renear, associate professor, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
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"I'm more effective with a class of 90 today than I was 20 years ago with 30 people and some equipment up front. Let's face it, your best time might be 2 o'clock in the morning, so if you're in here half falling asleep, you can see that demonstration or experiment again at home, and absorb it," he told students in his sound class the first day of this semester.

One major advantage over traditional texts is Ruiz's ability to update information, literally within minutes. And that's crucial, he says, in a field like astronomy, with constant discoveries and debates.

A campus like Asheville is a good match for e-book innovations. Most students have high-speed Internet access, either in their dorms, at home, or the school's computer labs. Most have come straight to college after graduating high school and have been tapping on keyboards since they were toddlers.

"It doesn't matter where you are on campus, you can always get to a computer, and your book is always there," said Erin Benson, a sophomore at UNC-A. "You don't have to carry a book around all the time, and it seems fun and interactive," she said.

E-book eschewed

But not every college is yet sharing the e-book enthusiasm.

At Clayton College & State University in Georgia, many students are older (average age 28) and juggling classes with a job and a family. For them, grabbing 10 quick minutes of reading time at their kids' soccer practice is precious, and doesn't lend itself to booting up a laptop.

E-book eschewed

"It's quicker to open it up (a traditional textbook) and highlight what you're reading as you go, instead of having to use your mouse," said Clayton student Keyscha Mosley.

Psychology professor Donna McCarty, an early enthusiast about e-book possibilities, realized that for her classes' needs, electronic books simply were not "there" yet.

The electronic format her students tested was to download an "Intro to Psychology" text onto their laptops, which all students at the college have.

"I think they will be a reality for students, 10 years from now," said McCarty. "But the ease of use, the convenience and that satisfying feeling you get when you're holding a book and it's all just right there in front of you -- somehow that feel has to be embedded into these products so that's not lost," she said.

Cautious advancement

Allen Renear, associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, says during the dot-com frenzy, some exaggerated predictions about what e-books would deliver and when managed to muddy the waters about electronic reading technology.

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"The fact is that electronic reading is a revolution that is happening," said Renear, who is also chair of a group developing standards for handheld electronic books (the Open eBook Forum's Publication Structure Working Group).

Renear believes textbooks are where e-books will come into their own, with audio and video, interactive diagrams and searching capabilities.

"The problems are going to be relatively pedestrian ones. Making sure that things work, that you have the right version of the textbook and software, and enough space and memory on your hard disk to hold the book and run the software," he said.

Reading on hand-held, or e-book devices, is moving more slowly. Several devices, of various sizes and capabilities, are on the market, but as of now they are a small part of the electronic reading "revolution."

Publishing powerhouse McGraw Hill is cautious. The company currently has 40 e-texts for the kindergarten through twelfth-grade market, about 400 for college-level students.

"Our expectations are fairly conservative. McGraw-Hill has been at this for a long time and we've seen technology initiatives come and go and amazing projections that are never quite met, so we are positioning ourselves for the future. But we do see it as a growth market and we're probably thinking more the 10-year range versus people's predictions of three to five years," said Roger Rogalin, senior vice president of public and government affairs for McGraw-Hill Education.

Several students said there's another benefit to e-texts that has nothing at all to do with learning or technology -- one less 20-pound textbook to lug around.




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