There is a lot of excitement in the academic world about the use of electronic textbooks in the classroom. Teachers are excited about the potential of this technology to enhance learning through the use of multimedia and interactive features. Students are excited about the potential for eBooks to bring down the enormous textbook costs they face every term. However, what people are so excited about is still just potential. Some of it has come into being, but a lot has yet to be realized. So with that in mind, I set out to try the different ebook platforms for myself. So many in the media are just reprinting stories and features but I question if they have picked up the device and actually tried it. I know I hadn’t…but now I have!
When choosing electronic textbooks you have to first choose a platform to purchase them from. For the test I chose to go with Kno.com, since it boasts one of the largest catalogs and claims to be “#1 in eTextbooks.” Next is selecting the device to read your textbooks on, and with Kno you have some choices. You can read your books on the web through any web browser, right on your Facebook account through a custom Kno application, or on your iPad by downloading the Kno app from iTunes. For the sake of portability and their rising popularity I chose to read my textbooks on my iPad. It’s important to note that not all books are available on all platforms as I learned the hard way since the text I selected is only available on iPad (possibly because of the 3D features). This is noted in the book description, so if multiple platforms are important to you, make sure you read all the notes on the screen.
The textbook I purchased was Chemistry, eighth edition by Steven S. Zumdahl and Susan A. Zumdahl. Why chemistry? There are few classes that require more time with your nose in the text than sciences, and for me chemistry was always the most difficult, so there you go. Also, this is one of 5 books Kno offers that feature 3D modeling technology, which is something I just had to see for myself. After creating an account, downloading the Kno app on my iPad and then downloading the rather large textbook file, I was ready to go.
Right away I was impressed with the app interface. It took a little while to figure out their organization structure, but even without digging into it you can immediately find all your purchased textbooks on the home screen. Their organization makes it easy to find a book you’re looking for if you have several by dividing them by course and your courses by term.
If your textbooks typically have post it notes spilling out of them and every page is covered in color coded highlighter marks, then you’re in luck. Highlighting text in your e-book is just as easy as and less messy than in your paper version, it’s just a tap and drag motion, much like unlocking the home screen on your iPad or iPhone. You can select one of 4 colors and attach a sticky note that is anchored to that specific selection. Being accurate with your highlighting is difficult, and it may take a few tries to select exactly the text you’re after, but this is more a problem with touch screens in general than the Kno app specifically. If you’ll be doing lots of highlighting, it might be smart to invest in a stylus for more accurate selections.
In addition to yellow sticky notes that are specific to the highlighted text they are anchored to, you can write blue sticky notes at any time and leave them attached to the page you are on. This makes for quick reference later when you are flipping through looking for a specific notation. Reviewing your own notes is made even easier by the Journal feature which allows you to view all highlighted text and sticky notes, along with a thumbnail of the page they are attached to. This makes for quick reference and definitely beats flipping from page to page looking for that one line of text. However, if you notate incessantly it might be just as difficult to find any one note when flipping through a multitude Journal entries. You can also book mark pages with one tap, and move between book marks quickly and easily.
One thing I found interesting is that at this time you cannot transfer notes, bookmarks or highlights between platforms. That means when you take notes on one platform, iPad in my case, you cannot access any of that information when viewing on the web or Facebook. Based on the warning message I got (above) it sounds like this is something that will be changed in the future. I certainly hope they find a way to transfer notations between platforms, otherwise you are pretty much locked into using whichever platform you begin taking notes in first.
With science books that use lots of charts, graphs and tables, the zoom feature is pretty handy, however on, say, history books it wouldn’t be quite as useful as you’ll probably read the whole book at the native resolution. However, say you’re looking through a digital history text for sections about the battle of Normandy, instead of skimming the index you can search for it. You can easily search from the app either by using the search bar at the top, or by highlighting words or phrases. You get the options to search the entire book, search the web or directly search Wikipedia, which is my usual go to for in-depth explanation.
Quiz Me is a beta feature which allows you to quickly quiz yourself on any table, graph or chart in the book. This feature is accessed by double tapping the section in question which will bring up a pop up quiz. The quiz works by blacking out text in the selected table and allowing you to ‘fill in the blanks’ from a list of all the omitted lines. However the first time I tried this it asked me to fill in the title of the table, but did not turn the actual data of the table into ‘fill in the blank’ questions. I had the opposite problem when I turned the periodic table into a quiz since it blacked out every bit of text on the page, making each a selectable answer. So when I went to fill in the info for Helium, I had to scroll through about 200 lines of answers to find the ones I was looking for. This way of automatically generating a quiz based on the content you are reading is exactly the kind of innovative feature that makes eBooks exciting and I’m interested to see how it advances after the beta testing is complete and some of the kinks are worked out.
Using the Book:
While most pages seemed like normal textbook pages, I noticed that on several there were blacked out areas where images were supposed to be. These all had the text ‘Image not available due to copyright restrictions’ in the center. It’s hard to say exactly how detrimental this would be to studying, as there are lots of images in any textbook that are just added visual ‘flavor’ without any real value and I would assume that they would not omit anything vital.
My most frustrating complaint is with the app stability. Several times while attempting to do ‘complicated’ gestures like double tapping to zoom or swiping too quickly between pages the app froze and crashed. My other phone and iPad apps crash on me all the time and it’s something many of us have come to expect from technology, but it is not something to be expected from a book. This may become very tiresome during a marathon study session in the library, but for normal use it’s a minor inconvenience that will become less problematic as the app is refined.
Finally, the 3D modeling technology is one of Kno’s biggest selling points. The ability to tap on your book and see a 3D version of a chemical compound is very cool, and being able to spin, flip and zoom into it is a lot of fun. This is also a feature that I feel really shows off the potential of e-books to revolutionize the way we use textbooks to study. However, the usefulness of this 3D modeling is subjective, and for some people, like me, it will be novel to play with, but probably doesn’t add any value to your understanding of the subject matter. If I look at this as a technology that has room to improve I can totally see how this may be useful as they improve it with future versions. Imagine a basic biology book where you need to dissect a frog. You can see a 3d model of the frog and swipe to remove sections, spin it to see different angles and really peal back the layers as you dissect.
While we are on the subject of 3D, I’d like to point out something about Kno’s return policy. I specifically chose this title for the 3D, but I unintentionally downloaded the regular, non-3D version of the text. After flipping through and not seeing any 3D I went online to chat with Kno’s customer service and find out where it was. After downloading the book himself and checking for me, Tyler (Kno’s customer service rep) informed me that I had bought the wrong copy. He quickly processed the return of my current copy and sent me a link to the correct, 3D enabled copy of the text. Because I was careful not to go past a certain point in the book (page 59 for this book) I was still eligible for Kno’s 15 day return policy, and with Tyler’s help it was a painless and smooth process. So if you’re skeptical about the switch to digital, you have 2 weeks to take the eBook to class and try it out.
Overall, I thought the Kno app was easy to use and the interface was very intuitive. Purchasing, downloading and organizing your course books is incredibly simple and just the fact that you don’t have to carry around a 10lb book (or several) is a huge bonus. Many of the features that make Kno better than an other eBook app are still in beta and while I see the potential of them really having an impact I still think they need some work. The basic features for reading, managing notes and referring back to martial are solid. I can see this app really improving overtime as some of the bugs are worked out and key features are enhanced.
The thoughts represented in the blog are soley those based on my experience with the book. Kno did not provide me with a free copy of the book nor did they ask me to highlight any features. As I review more options that a student has I will look to compare applications to one another.