In theory, electronic textbooks (or eTexts) offer advantages for students. They tend to cost less than printed books. They can incorporate videos, animations, and interactive content. They offer keyword searches, digital bookmarking, and other handy tools.
But one nagging question hampers adoption of eTexts: Do students actually read them?
The Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology wants to find out. OTLT’s Research and Analytics team is studying how students engage with eTexts and what instructors can do to boost eText reading.
“I’ve talked with students who say they love keyword searches but admit they read less when they can just search for a term,” says Jae-Eun (Jane) Russell, director of Research and Analytics for OTLT and principal investigator for the study.
Russell and colleagues—including partners at the University of Indiana, Colorado State University, and the University of Nebraska—will track how students page, click, and otherwise navigate through eTexts. They’ll also chart whether instructional methods encourage eText engagement.
“We’d like to understand whether instruction really promotes reading,” Russell says. “If it does, then what instructional strategies work best?”
Respecting student privacy
Earlier OTLT studies have exposed the limits of eTexts. Students have told researchers they prefer traditional books, to the point where many buy printed texts even when they have a free digital alterative. Previous study subjects also report less time reading eTexts and rarely use features designed to boost reading.
The new project will dig deeper to learn more about reading habits and interventions. It’s supported by a $20,000 grant from the Unizin Consortium and $20,000 in matching funds from the university.
Investigators will respect and protect student privacy, a practice they follow not just in research, but in all projects that deal with academic information.
Case in point: Elements of Success (EoS), a platform that tells students how they’re performing in comparison to peers, is currently being used in 25 courses. In developing EoS, Russell and colleagues learned that students were eager to use it but concerned about what it might suggest to their instructors.
“For instructors, the platform reports only aggregated data, reducing the possibility of bias,” Russell says. “They can’t see which students are using EoS.”
Supporting students and faculty
EoS is the Research and Analytics team’s primary student-facing project, a platform that students access directly. Most of the team’s other initiatives provide tools and data aimed at instructors, who in turn use them to optimize courses and methods.
The eText study has potential to benefit faculty and students alike. For faculty, it may reveal teaching practices that promote engagement with electronic materials. For students, it may point to enhancements that make those materials both accessible and effective.
“Adopting open educational resources that include eTexts can remove cost barriers,” Russell says. “Our project aims to help students and faculty use them to their fullest.”