Could e-books lighten cadets' loads?

  • Published
  • By David Edwards
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Cadets who currently lug around bags stuffed with bulky books may one day be able to lighten their loads considerably.

Curriculum directors here plan to explore the possibility of replacing traditional textbooks with e-books, but while the idea has loads of intriguing potential, it also carries some drawbacks.

As the Academy proceeds with the e-book experiment, it will look for answers to crucial questions. For example, how will cadets view a tradeoff that removes many of the hassles of buying books but also precludes resale at the end of the course?

"E-books are here for the consumer market, but I'm not sure about the college market," said Col. Rich Fullerton, vice dean of the faculty and an economics professor. "We're investigating what role they might play in the future. What really will drive our decision is learning: Will e-books enhance learning?"

One higher-education institution that early on found a place for e-books in its curriculum is the University of North Carolina at Asheville. In a 2002 article, CNN documented the use of the technology in astronomy professor Michael Ruiz's classes.

"I'm more effective with a class of 90 (students) today than I was 20 years ago with 30 people and some equipment up front," he told CNN.

Since then, e-books have gone mainstream and can be read on a variety of portable devices, although proprietary formats prevent one company's files from being compatible with another's e-reader.

Part of the problem with switching to e-books is that the market itself is unsettled right now. Publishers and booksellers see electronic readers as the next big thing, and all of the big names are rushing to get into the game. The result, Colonel Fullerton said, is reminiscent of the battle for supremacy between the Beta and VHS video formats in the 1980s, and more recently between Blu-Ray disc players and their high-definition-DVD competitors.

Two leaders in the market today are Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook. Meanwhile, Apple's iPad hit the market earlier this year, and Sony and Borders also offer e-readers.

"If we were to do this, we couldn't ask the cadets to buy a Nook, a Kindle (and) an iPad," Colonel Fullerton said. He noted some of the pros and cons of the electronic format as applied in an academic setting. E-readers' capacity allows users to store hundreds or even thousands of titles on the device, so in theory, cadets could carry their reading for all their courses in one small package. There's also a convenience factor: e-books are delivered in a matter of seconds or minutes, not days. Finally, e-books tend to cost less -- sometimes much less -- than their printed counterparts.

On the other hand, most of the devices don't show color, meaning that an illustration of a molecule in a chemistry text will appear in black and white. Colonel Fullerton said Academy officials are unsure whether e-readers are effective at displaying equations. He also said that while e-books are excellent for the linear format people use to read most types of text, some course material may pose difficulties because the book is better used as a reference work, meaning the reader will flip back and forth between pages and sections.

Publishers could fight a trend toward e-books, considering how lucrative the textbook industry is for them. But Colonel Fullerton said that as an economist, he thinks demand will determine what course the market ends up following. As for the Academy, the course charted for exploration of the new technology in cadets' classes will take shape gradually, unfolding in tandem with the current school year.

"My personal opinion is that e-books will eventually get there; the question is how soon," Colonel Fullerton said. "We have yet to devise the experiment, but we'll have a test to see how the cadets and faculty respond. We'd be reluctant to make a large-scale transition until we see the results of our test."