3 Simple (+ Free) Tools to Teach with E-Texts


Image licensed under CCSA/Sean MacEntee

An Affair for the Ages

E-texts are in an awkward position. In many cases, they’re unwelcome third parties
threatening the legendary “love affair” between man and print.

To put it mildly, in the words of Books: A Living History author, Martyn Lyons: “The
Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment
all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and
half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to
administer, to worship, and to educate.”

According to an April 2012 BISG study the love affair is still in the throes of passion.
While no amount of cheeky metaphor makes this tabloid-worthy gossip, it’s certainly
notable in an age when traditional relationships are continually tested by new

An Impending Breakup?

Traditionalists (and romantics) will root for this love to last, but anyone in higher
education would be remiss to ignore the red flags of a relationship in jeopardy.

A January 2012 Pearson Foundation poll found that tablet ownership among college
students and high school seniors has more than tripled from a year ago and that both
groups believe tablets are just as valuable for educational purposes as they are for
personal entertainment.

These findings give credence to the rising tide of voices declaring that tomorrow’s crop
of learners raised on a healthy diet of e-texts will prefer them to print books, even in
academic settings.

According to Elizabeth Barkley, author of Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook
for College Faculty, even in their most basic form, e-texts have certain advantages over
print books: they’re often available at a lower cost, more portable, greener, and more

Practical Solutions for Those Caught In the Middle

Yet, few universities have invested in e-text formal initiatives, like Indiana University’s
. So, for those instructors who want to prepare for the learners of the future,
a “ready, fire, aim” approach is in order. Use the following online tools to get started.

Instapaper allows busy web surfers to save long-form articles to read later. The program
makes it easy to collect dozens of subject-matter relevant reads from publications like
The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Business Week for leisurely consumption on an e-

The feature that makes it a prime learning tool? Sharing.

Users can connect their accounts to social networking sites like Facebook, and Twitter,
and share the articles they save. So, as instructors find articles that supplement their
course materials, they can push it out to students with a click of a button and a message
like, “Will discuss in class.” Students who follow their instructors’ social media accounts
will read the piece on their own e-reader and (theoretically) come to class armed with
talking points.

Initiatives like IU’s eTexts have revealed that students appreciate the benefit of viewing
their professors’ highlights and annotations in course materials.

Findings — a site allowing readers to share their highlights and annotations from e-texts
and print books — is a tool for offering those benefits to all students. With its visually
driven layout, think of it as Pinterest for book lovers.

With Findings, an instructor syncs her Kindle account (available without owning the
actual device) to Findings and makes her Amazon highlights and annotations public.
Students who follow their instructor’s account will then be privy to what she considered
to be noteworthy, profound, or just a pretty sentence.

It’s important to note that Findings emphasizes its commitment to users’ privacy,
and allows for both public and private highlights and annotations. So, notes on
Machiavelli’s The Prince are available for edification purposes, but highlights from Fifty
Shades of Grey —not so much.

Like with Instapaper, it’s possible to share “findings” instantly via Twitter, Facebook and

Flat World Knowledge
According to this innovative textbook company, they kept what works about textbooks
– expert authors, editorial development, peer review and teaching supplements
– and “changed everything else to give choices and control back to students and

Instructors can adopt and customize a textbook from the site’s catalog and students can
choose a format for purchasing the book, including a paid e-text option. Students also
can read the e-text for free online.

The service allows instructors to take advantage of some of the potential teaching
and learning benefits inherent to e-texts, which Barkley points out are the ability to
create “deep, layered material” including hyperlinks, rich multimedia, interactivity, and
richer, more varied assessments.

With this in mind, perhaps the greatest benefit of FWK’s services is the chance for
instructors to practice modifying textbooks. Since such customization options are the
way of the future, it pays for instructors to dabble now.

Toward a Happily Ever-After Ending

An under-reported finding from the BISG study was that of the 20 percent of college
faculty members who had already adopted an e-text, 90 percent were happy with the
results and reported they would likely adopt an e-text again.

While the above tools provide ways for instructors to begin using e-texts, there are
more substantial ways to influence change. Barkley suggests pressuring publishers to
improve their offerings, or to look for alternative publishers.

She says, “E-texts with high functionality are the way of the future, and publishers that
figure out how to provide excellent products that integrate contemporary learning
theory and research will thrive.”


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