Welcome to the next installment of the Textbook Guru’s eBook review series. Today I am taking a look at the CourseSmart eTextbook platform, but I’ve already reviewed Kno and Inkling, which you can read first if you haven’t already. My first two reviews were done using iPad apps, but CourseSmart is a little different, as you’ll see, so I am predominantly using it through my web browser.
As before, lets begin by talking about the purchasing experience, since each platform so far has had a different policy. With Kno and Inkling, each book (or chapter on Inkling) is fully purchased and yours forever (if you chose). With CourseSmart, all of their eBooks are rentals, and are disabled from your account at the end of the rental period. Renting print and eTextbooks was a hot topic at the start of this academic year as a way to save money, but some students found that because of their school schedule, they’d either have to rent the book for only part of their term, or extend into the next. With CourseSmart, nearly all of their rentals are for a 12 month period, ensuring that you’ll have plenty of time to use it.
Unlike Inkling, but similar to Kno, CourseSmart has a 14 day return policy on all their books granted you haven’t viewed or used more than 20% of the book. Of course all your books, or chapters of books, need to be ‘checked in’ before you can return it, which leads me to my next point. You can ‘check out’ sections of books, or entire books (up to 5 titles) which allows you to download them to your computer for offline reading. In my opinion this is one of the strongest features CourseSmart has to offer, since even today in the 21st century a reliable Internet connection is not always available.
Lets dive right into using the eBook. For starters, CourseSmart offers many of the tools I’ve come to expect from an eBook. For instance you can write notes that become anchored to the page they are written on. These notes are then accessible through the menu sidebar and are sorted by page number. This is pretty standard but what I found interesting is that you can also see all your notes inany book directly from you bookshelf. This would prove very handy if you take heavy notes to study from later.
Highlighting is also a standard feature, although CourseSmart only allows one color, yellow. Anything you highlight is also organized in the sidebar like your notes and you can quickly jump between important sections using this menu. Instead of being saved on your clipboard to be pasted later, when you copy text, CourseSmart pulls it out in a pop up window and converts it to plain text. As someone who prefers bulleted lists for studying instead of long passages, this would be helpful for sifting out only the important text and having it in a workable, editable format right in the eBook.
One feature I was disappointed in was the zoom tool. The other platforms I’ve seen have allowed me to zoom in and out freely on any part of the page, which was very helpful in the science texts which often have large diagrams or charts. However, when using CourseSmart on the web, the zoom tool simply toggles between normal view and a slight zoom, probably around 50% larger.
A weak zoom tool is certainly not a deal breaker, but it is more than made up for by two features CourseSmart boasts that I haven’t seen anywhere else, ‘share’ and ‘print.’ Clicking share will give you a URL to copy so you can “share this link with your instructor or classmates.” When your classmate opens the link, they are able to view the page you shared as if they were logged into your CourseSmart account. The best thing about this feature? It saves your highlights and notes from that page. This is the kind of interactive study tool I’ve been hoping to see in an eBook. Which leads me to the next great study feature.
CourseSmart allows you to print up to a 10 page passage directly from your web browser. Selecting print allows you to select a start page (defaults to the page you are currently viewing) and up to 10 pages after. Just like sharing a page through a link, this feature also preserves highlights, however notes are not printed along side it.
As I stated above, one of the most impressive features on CourseSmart is the ability to read offline. You can read any part of any book you’ve rented offline, as long as you don’t exceed 5 titles checked out at a time. Attempting to check out a 6th title will prompt you to check in one of your other books. To access your books while offline, you need to first be online. From your bookshelf you can select ‘read now’ or ‘read offline’ which will allow you to check off which chapters you want to download.
Being a big fan of Google’s web browser Chrome, I was disappointed that offline reading is only supported on Firefox version 3.6 and higher. I’ve run into this problem with other services, so I always keep Firefox on my desktop, but with so many browsers our there it seems strange to only support one. However, after you download the chapter(s), you need to bookmark the offline section by visiting coursesmart.com/offlinebookshelf. Then, to access your books offline you simply open your browser, click your bookmark for offline bookshelf and all your downloaded titles are waiting for you.
Now I must admit that complaining about the offline bookshelf’s limited availability seems silly when you consider the fact that your entire online bookshelf is available through ANY web browser with an Internet connection. So for offline I’m stuck with Firefox, but for online I can read from Chrome, Safari, IE, and most importantly any mobile web browser. There are mobile apps for Android and iOS devices, but being able to read from any device that can get to the CourseSmart website seems like a pretty handy feature.
Next, it’s important to note the inclusion of ‘eResources’ with certain titles. At first glance I assumed this would be similar to that DVD in the back of your textbook that you had to pay an extra $30 for but never end up using. However, while the eResource component of CourseSmart texts delivers valuable extra features, but they are features that are already embedded in the text on other platforms. Features like online homework, quizzes and exercises, simulations and videos or links to outside websites with related content.
To me, this is sort of missing the point of an eBook. These features are separated into a companion DVD for most print textbooks because there’s no way to include that content within the book. But eBooks have no limits to the kind of content they can display which is what makes them so exciting. Being able to tap on a diagram and hear a professor explain photosynthesis, or spinning a chlorophyll molecule around in a 3D image, or opening full screen videos that literally show you how evolution works is what separates eBooks from print books. Separating these features into a seperate eResource section seems like a step backwards to me.
Overall I enjoyed using CourseSmart. They have most of the standard features you’d expect from an eBook and it was simple to use and navigate within a book. I was disappointed in the lack of multimedia features within the text, but the study features like printing and sharing are very useful and not available elsewhere. However the best part of the CourseSmart platform is the ability to read on or offline, and the variety of devices you can access your books from. Being restricted to the iPad on other platforms is like print books in that you only have the one copy, but CourseSmart is like having a copy anywhere you have an Internet connection.
Since I’ve never had to reference any of my school books after I was finished with the course, the idea of having them on a rental basis makes a lot of sense. The 12 month rental period is handy since you don’t have to worry about how your schedule matches up to the rental periods, and if it results in lower prices to purchasing the eBook outright then I’m all in. I think CourseSmart is doing a lot of things right, and they have a very solid eTextbook platform that covers all the bases, however I look forward to watching them innovate in the years to come as certain features become industry standards.