Open-book exam? Don’t forget your e-Reader

e-Readers such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony PRS-505 are enjoying a surge of interest this summer. It is not too difficult to see the e-Reader as a handy item to pack in your holiday luggage. Imagine being able to bring along the entire works of Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare with room for dozens if not hundreds more, all in a thin, light, attractive gadget which furthermore increases the font to just the right size for your eyes with a single click. e-Readers flow the pages one after another, presenting them in the same way most people read novels.

But can e-Readers serve up textbooks in a way which is helpful and conducive to study? And what about the traditional handouts and notes – could these be usefully offered on e-Readers? Our DUCKLING project is addressing questions such as these.

Looking at handouts and notes alone, there is money-saving potential. Photocopying, collating, and shipping a box of notes to a distance learner for a single module often costs several hundreds of pounds. Shipping a £199 e-Reader (the current price of the PRS-505) loaded with the pertinent files should realise definite savings.

For on-campus students as well, the weight of paper versus the weight of an e-Reader is a factor. Imagine having all textbooks and notes in a single, light gadget, rather than lugging books and papers in a heavy backpack around campus all day. Being able to add one’s own annotations to notes and textbooks is a fairly-necessary feature which the Sony PRS-505 for example does not have, although Sony’s next model version (not yet available in the UK) does.

I recently sat an open-book final exam for an advanced statistics class. The instructor set the exam rules thus: “You may bring any inanimate object into the exam with you, except a laptop.” My instructor, albeit very forward-thinking, was still not ready to allow full access to the internet during an open-book exam. That particular issue may be a topic for another blog post. But my question was: what books and what notes shall I bring to an exam which I knew would be in-depth and complicated, and on a topic for which I did not feel great confidence? Printing out almost all of the notes and handouts from the VLE produced a stack of paper over a foot high. I could not imagine lugging that, plus 3 textbooks, into an exam where I would be sitting at one of those old wooden exam tables less than 2 feet wide.

My immediate thought would be to bring an appropriately-loaded e-Reader to my “open-e-book” exam. Would my instructor have been any more willing to let me do this, however, than to let me bring in my laptop? I suspect that a good search function alone might make the instructor uneasy enough to ban e-Readers as well, on the basis that the search function would be doing the work I should do for the exam. Instructor unease will only increase as e-Readers’ direct connection to the internet improves.

The real question, however, is whether textbook publishers will develop a healthy model of “e-textbooks.” So far, the tendency for some is to charge much more for an “e-textbook” than for a traditional text, on the basis that “students might just give away the e-book to their friends.” If they maintain that stance and e-Reader purchases grow at a rate anything like that of mp3 players, textbook publishers will find themselves in the same predicament as the music industry. It is in everyone’s interest that a healthy model of e-textbook pricing and availability is developed.

 Terese Bird

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