Friday, April 25, 2014

Article Note: On E-book Literacy and Undergraduate Experience with E-Books

Citation for the article:

Muir, Laura and Graeme Hawes, "The Case for e-Book Literacy: Undergraduate Students' Experience with e-Books for Course Work."  The Journal of Academic Librarianship 39 (2013): 260-274.

Read via ScienceDirect.

I was interested in this article because we are in the midst of discussing our philosophies or approaches when it comes to e-books. We are asking questions now such as:

  • what is the role of e-books?
  • are they just for brief, scholarly uses? 
  • do we want or wish to encourage people to actually read them? 
  • academic books versus popular books? which to collect? how much of each? do we even bother with or consider popular reading materials as e-books? 
I was also interested in this article due to a recent reading experience. I read a book on readers' advisory, and I wanted to see if I could get other titles in that series. My library has a couple of the titles in question as electronic books (part of the EBSCOhost e-book collection). I noticed that to "borrow" it and download it to a reading device (if I recall, it would work with my iPad with Bluefire in this case), after setting up an account with the EBSCO system, I could only have the book for five days give or take. I can read fast, but I cannot read that fast, so naturally I ask our electronic resources manager about it. She informed me that the loan could be renewed if need be or that in the long term we (the library) could decide to change the loan limit. That got me thinking what about other people who may want to read a full book for any number of reasons and they get the issue I got. This is a bit of a long way to express some of the things I am thinking about as I read this article.

The article reports on an observation-based case study where students were given an assignment that required the use of e-books. The idea was to see how the students used the e-books and to learn about their experience with them. The study took place at St. Andrews University, and it was students in a Quantum Mechanics class. To collect data, they did a pre-assignment questionnaire, a direct observation of a sample of students that had taken the questionnaire, and an interview after the tasks. The article includes appendices so readers can see the survey instruments. I know that some of the questions in the initial survey are ones we might want to integrate in our data gathering down the road.

Notes from the article, with some comments:

  • "Some of the reasons for slow acceptance of e-books have included limited academic e-book provision by publishers, lack of awareness of e-books among potential users, user discomfort from reading online and poorly designed interfaces on e-book platforms" (260). (Not to mention different platforms, and they all have different technical requirements and obstacles to overcome, and more.)
  • From the literature review, reasons given for the appeal of e-books: 24/7 availability, "instant online access," and "no need to visit the library" (261). This from a 2009 study by Chelin (link to Chelin article here).
  • "If e-books are to be widely adopted as an alternative to the printed book for academic work, then they must provide better user experience and tangible enhancements for scholarly work" (261). (We are are way behind on this issue. It is a big reason why when we offer students an e-book, they almost inevitably answer, "do you have the real book?")
  • From the findings of the first questionnaire: "Most of the students (98.3%) had used e-books prior to the study. Of these, 95.2% had used them for academic study." Now, what we really need to pay attention to is this: "However, this does not imply that they had successfully mastered the features of e-books and it was evident (in the observed task) that some of these students struggled, even with basic navigation, despite having used e-books previously" (262). This also prompted me to ask if we should be adding some instruction on how to use e-books to our library instruction program, be it in the instruction sessions or maybe as workshops (the article will make a case for e-book literacy, so it would certainly provide me with evidence to support making such a case here). 
  • Notice the latter part of this statement: "This suggests that the students had perhaps used e-books because they were instructed to do so, or out of interest or desire to explore the format, but that further engagement with e-books would be driven by need to access a text in whatever form was available (with print as the preferred option)" (262). And do note the part in parenthesis. In other words, e-books may tolerated as the only option available, but they are not the preferred option, and in my experience at the reference desk e-books are the option to avoid unless there is nothing else available. Now I think some of that has improved a bit over time, but there is still a long way to go. In classes, we may show students that we do have e-books, and we may highlight a feature or two, but there is certainly no formal instruction on how to use them. This is something I realize we need to work on, but then the usual question of time constraints in an instruction session arises. 
  • Students often reported problems with the search functions of e-book platforms. This caught my eye because often when talking up e-books, the fact that "you can search it" is a talking point. However, depending on the platform, the search function may or not do what one intuitively expects it to do.
  • "Most of the participants in the observed task struggled with page to page navigation: from discovering the features which allowed them to navigate the pages; to using them properly; to general frustration at the slowness of page loading and the inability to scroll down through pages" (266). This right here is one of various reasons that e-books are not going to beat print books any time soon no matter what some tech guru says.
  • Furthermore, a student respondent: "I'm thinking about using a [print] textbook as opposed to this, in terms of finding something unknown it would be a bit quicker because, you know, you can flick back and forth through the pages at a faster speed." [Student E]" (267). For me, as a user of e-books (a lot of them being books I review), this is a big reason I prefer print books. Nothing that frustrates a reader faster than trying to move back and forth in a book and the pages "freeze up." 
  • Yet not all hope is lost. Here is something contrary to the common wisdom: "This suggests that students will read e-books online at length where they perceive the value of doing so" (267). Making those e-books work better certainly would help more. 
  • In addition, the inconsistent nature of platforms, access, and other issues with e-books could raise other concerns, such as "accessibility issues could arise for students with additional learning needs (such as Dyslexia or Dyspraxia)" (268). Overall, many of the e-book platforms I have observed are not necessarily the most friendly to students who may have learning or other disabilities.
  • Here is a totally cynical observation on my part as to why e-book issues do not get fixed (or at least do not get fixed in any reasonable time frame): it is not commercially viable for the providers to fix them. After all, as the article quotes, "a solution which addresses user requirements but is not commercially viable is of no value. . . " (272). It's of no value to the e-book provider that is. 
  • On what librarians can do: "Availability is only part of the issue, however. Librarians have a role to play to effectively market and promote collections and make e-books easily discoverable via Library OPACs-- perhaps even at chapter level. . . " (272). 
  • This goes to my previous question on e-books and instruction: "For librarians and academics, the onus is on developing skills for effective use of e-books. This study has revealed that current approaches to training students to use e-books effectively for scholarly activity is generally lacking. Instruction tends to be focussed on locating the e-books for study rather than on their use to achieve students' goals" (272). How can we address this becomes my question. Additional workshops? For the students? In our campus here, could we do it with the peer tutors? For faculty? The authors propose a useful typology of skills and use experiences. For me, I do wonder then how it can be integrated into our information literacy program's objectives and assessments. That is thinking a bit further down the road for me. 
The article certainly gave me a lot to think about. I did briefly discuss it with my library director, and I know this will be a topic we will continue to explore. 

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