How Will E-Texts Fare in the Law School Market?

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I’m not a technology expert, but I’m open to trying new gadgets and thinking about how to use them in law teaching.  So with all the buzz about the Kindle DX, I wonder how (how soon?) e-texts will make their appearance in the law school classroom.  

I received a “first generation” Kindle this year as a birthday gift.  Quite frankly, I’m not impressed (yet).  It’s ok for reading books, but I find the navigation system to be clumsy and inefficient.  That makes for awkward reading of newspapers and magazines.  I wasn’t surprised, then, by this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry – pay site, but day passes available).  In “6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks,” writer Jeffrey Young describes Northwest Missouri State University’s experiment with an early version of the Sony Reader:

Students who got the machines quickly asked for their printed books back because it was so awkward to navigate inside the e-books (though a newer version of the device works more gracefully).

Young offers six “lessons” for those assigning e-books or considering them:

1. Judge e-books by their covers.  No, not their jacket art, but the device and software used to display them. ***

The university started out last fall by handing out Sony’s Reader devices loaded with textbooks published by McGraw-Hill to about 240 students. The project used the original model of the Sony Reader, which students found difficult to operate. “It was hard to even find where you were supposed to be in those things,” said Thomas M. Spencer, an associate professor of history. Worse, the e-book wasn’t numbered the same way as the printed edition, so it was hard for everyone to get on the same page. ***  Nearly 40 percent of the participants surveyed in March agreed that “I study less because the e-textbook makes studying more difficult.” ***

2. Learning curves ahead.  Tania Brobst, a junior at the university, is proud of the note-taking techniques she’s developed over the years. She crafts typed study guides for each of her courses, and she carefully highlights material in her printed textbooks.

When she ended up in a marketing course this spring that required her to use a digital textbook, she had to adapt her strategies. ***

3. Professors are eager students.  Faculty members are known to be reluctant to change their teaching approaches. So the original goal was to rope five or six professors into volunteering for the spring experiment. But 54 professors said they wanted in. ***

4. Long live batteries.  The technical difficulty that came up the most in my interviews with students was battery life. Students said they sometimes forgot to charge their laptops overnight, so they had to find a spot in the lecture hall to plug in if they wanted to use their books in class. ***

5. Subjects are not equally e-friendly.  ***  Michael J. Wilson, an associate professor of accounting, economics, and finance, said the one problem they had with the e-book in the marketing course was when students needed to refer to a dense table of numbers in the back. He demonstrated for me, noting a pop-up window with a font that was almost illegible. “You can kind of expand them, but it’s not as easy as it could be.”

At least laptops can display color. E-reading devices handle only black and white. That’s a major handicap for science or medical books that rely on illustrations.

6. Environmental impact matters.  ***  [A]dministrators said they were surprised at the degree to which such consciousness affected students’s opinions.

I teach Tax, so I hear all the time from students that the required texts — especially the statutory volume — are heavy and inconvenient.  So students might be eager to ditch the traditional paper version in favor of streamlined e-Code.  But for folks who like to underline, circle and highlight in multiple fluorescent colors, e-books aren’t there…yet.  

Maybe the Millenials will approach e-books the way some GenXers approach internet research:  they might like it, use it, and occasionally crave the “old fashioned” ways.  But if the next generation – the generation after the Millenials — grows up with e-texts (the way today’s law students “grow up” with on-line versions of Shepard’s), they likely will think about and use books in new ways.  We — current youngsters and not-so-youngsters — will have to adapt to keep up with them.  

I look forward to it!  

-Bridget Crawford

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One Response to How Will E-Texts Fare in the Law School Market?

  1. efink says:

    My choice of the Benjamin Spencer casebook for Civil Procedure was significantly influenced by the E-text feature (web based, not Kindle). I especially like the hyperlinks to cited rules, statutes, etc. within the cases; and I suspected at least some students would appreciate not having to schlep the hard copy text around. Most students reported that they did like these features and I’m inclined to adopt other books of this type as they become available (assuming that the selection of cases, materials and problems are good, which I think they are in the Spencer book).

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