The eTextbook has been available for more than 12 years, yet has not taken off. This was our starting point – we asked the question – why haven’t eTextbooks taken off?
Students are immersed in the digital world, with their computers, access to the web, and social networking on their phones. But, most of this is an “add-on” to their 18 (or more) pounds of a physical textbooks. Textbooks are heavy, costly, and awkward to carry around, but still they are the central reference source for majority of students. Why is that? Why hasn’t a digital device taken off, providing students with a lighter, cheaper, and more functional alternative?
Answering this question was simple: talk to the students, and let them tell us what’s going on. Students have a “relationship” with their textbooks and build their studying habits around them. Things like seeing both pages in a two page spread, the way they hold their books, using a highlighter, writing on sticky notes they’ve placed on a page, even putting their finger in the book to look something up while holding their place. Lighter and cheaper is a good start, but not enough. It’s this relationship with the textbooks that needs to be carried over to the digital world.
What was needed was a product that fused together these natural study behaviors, technology, and available educational content, but nothing existed that blended all three. Learning and education is a very different beast than consumer entertainment. While there may be a lot of devices out there for watching movies, surfing the internet, and reading the latest novel, we clearly found that these devices are not very useful to students for their classes. Things fall apart when the student gets ready to read, organize based on their needs, write, and collaborate with other students and teachers.
In order to translate this “relationship” with the text book, some digital products, like Kno, were a two-screen tablet so that a student can see full pages without losing context when flipping from one page to the next. It is a product with touch and gestures to emulate how students handle a physical book. The 14.1” color screens allow the textbooks to look as beautiful as a physical book, maintaining the complex layouts designed by authors. Pen-based writing allows students to make hand-written notes, as students learn better when they write rather than type.
Seamless integration with web and multimedia resources insures that information is always right at the student’s fingertips. The list goes on and on, but you get the picture.
Law eTextbooks Size in the Future
Why the dimensions for the Kno, a 14.1 two-panel device?.
Technologists gravitate towards smaller. But, working with students and publishers to design the Kno, they designed a product that aligned to the problem, not one that aligned to their desires as technologists. There were 3 primary factors that drove our decision.
1. History – Digital textbooks have failed. Although they have been out for over 10 years, digital textbooks have garnered less than 1% of the market. The primary reason given by students is the poor experience which includes having to scroll to see even a single page and the lack of natural interactivity (page turning, highlighting, etc.).
2. Textbooks are large and students want to see and interact with whole pages. Textbooks are often designed with complex layouts and large page sizes which don’t lend themselves to small screens. So the only way to display a textbook is to
a. Use a small screen which forces the student to scroll (History has spoken),
b. Shrink the page (making it virtually unreadable),
c. Reformat the textbook to display properly in a range of screen sizes (a whole lot of change for the publishers)*,
d. Deliver a product that displays pages properly (our choice).
3. Unlike pleasure reading, studying is not linear or single-focused. In reading textbooks, students often have to be in two places at once. Examples include reviewing end of chapter questions, and looking up answers to those questions, or taking notes while reading a textbook. Very difficult to do on a small screen or a single screen.
The result of the analysis drove the design of the Kno. So the next logical question we faced was if the resulting product was too big?
When looking at the problem of reading textbooks from a classic consumer filter you naturally compare the Kno with products like a Kindle or iPad. In that context the Kno is bigger. But reframe from just one of the student’s many perspectives. Students carry backpacks that weigh between 12 and 24 pounds and have an average of 4 textbooks per term. Textbooks are heavy. In fact the average weight of a textbook is 4.8 pounds. To mitigate this weight students are constantly making trade-off decisions about what to take from their dorm room, and what to leave behind. So the Kno, at less than 6 pounds and able to hold over 8 full terms worth of textbooks, notes, professor’s materials, etc., is viewed by students as an improvement over their current experience.
And that is just one of the student perspectives that is addressed by the Kno.
Sure, size does matter, but smaller devices have not proven they can stand up to the demands of digital textbooks and the full educational experience. So these smaller devices are not generally viewed as a viable option by students. As one student recently put it in reviewing the Kno ‘actually the size is quite fair.’
Our goal is to deliver the best experience in the smallest, lightest package. So form and function must meet to deliver against that goal.
*Footnote: In doing this analysis, we faced the question about textbooks (as we know them) going away and being replaced by new forms of content that better align to a smaller screen experience. This is a fair question which we’ll answer in another article. Suffice it to say, that we don’t see things changing rapidly.