Archive for the ‘ eBook ’ Category

eBook Review: Xplana

Fresh on the heels of our Flatworld Knowledge review, we are taking a look at another innovative textbook platform that is about more than just textbooks. Xplana is a platform launched two years ago by MBS Service Company Inc (a former employer of mine). intended to bridge ‘social networking and traditional elements of student learning to transform the way students manage their academic lives.”

So what does that mean? Lets turn to Xplana Chief Executive Officer Dennis Flanagan who said ” Xplana is best described as the social network for learning. It’s the first ever ‘social learning’ platform designed to bring the entire student learning life into a single location.”

So how does Xplana accomplish this rather daunting goal? Providing an eReader and a store through which to by eTextbooks is a natural place to start, but Xplana is much more, and purchasing eBooks is a small part of the big picture. Xplana allows you to collect learning materials on your profile the same way you collect records of your social life and interests on Facebook. Any media related to your academics can be uploaded and associated with your profile, be it a copy of a course sylibi, a website of supplemental material, class notes or even a video recording of a lecture.

In addition to uploading original materials you can search through hundreds of thousands of resources already available on Xplana. Many of these materials have been uploaded by students like you! So next time your cramming for an exam, you can skip the library stacks and pool resources from Xplana to supplement your course material.

However, Xplana can help you stay organized to ease the inevitable last minute cram. You can create your own study tools such as flashcards, notes and study guides as you go for easy reference later on dificult topics. Calendar and journal features let you schedule future study sessions and keep track of class projects, or keep a running record of your academic life.

Just like you might have a photo album on Facebook for that trip you took to Europe after high school, you can collect academic resources into albums within Xplana. This is a great way to keep everything from your actual eTextbook to your class notes to that one website your classmate recommended all in one place. With a little forethought, you can also add keyword tags to any item in your album to make them easily searchable later.

Now this is all great, but where is the social part of this ‘social learning platform?’ I’m glad you asked, because Xplana allows you to friend other users accounts, be it an assigned group project partner, a fellow classmate or simply another student somewhere in the world with similar academic needs. Got a mid-term coming up? You can invite your Xplana friends to an online study group or collaborate on a group project with the messaging system.

Want to show your study group a great resource you found on Xplana? Simple linking allows you to email them a link to any resource material on Xplana or you can share materials through Facebook and Twitter. Better yet, if you and your group all have the same eTextbook for your course, you can instantly share any notes or annotations you’ve made in your copy or see some made by other users.  Just want the best notes and annotations from other students? Then make a habit of rating and commenting on others annotations as you’re searching for the highest rated insight.

And this brings is back around full circle to the most fundamental but by no means simplest part of any digital learning platform, the eBook reader. Xplana’s proprietary reader boasts many progressive features that are quickly becoming industry standards. Search functionality, highlighting and the aforementioned notes and annotation functions are extremely helpful study tools. Checkpoint quizzes to test your comprehension are also invaluable in finding the holes in your understanding of a chapter.

However Xplana’s reader doesn’t stop there and features embedded rich media like animations, videos, audio clips and live links. As we’ve discussed before, these features are already a standard in eReaders when it comes to academic texts, but not all platforms fully support them as of yet. It just goes to show that Xplana isn’t resting on it’s social side by wrapping a second rate eReader into the platform and I look forward to seeing how their reader develops as new capabilities enter the market.

Do you have inconsistent internet access? No problem, you can easily download you eBook for viewing offline. All in reader features (notes/annotations/edits) still work offline and will automatically sync with your online profile the next time you log in.

If offline reading just won’t cut it, you can always take advantage of the Xplana mobile app. Available for iPhone and Android phones, the Xplana app gives you access to all your course materials and will auto sync to your account when you add new media on the desktop version. The app will also allow you to share materials with friends by email or on Twitter and Facebook. You can even take notes on mobile, or better yet, capture photos, audio or video of your lecture which can be uploaded to Xplana and added to your course materials. It’s hard to say exactly how useful this tool will be but it’s one I wish I’d had all those times I went to study and found doodles instead of notes in my notebook.

Xplana certainly didn’t invent the eReader, or social networking, or the idea of searchable, indexed user submitted content, but they are the first company to wrap up so many tools into one platform. Being able to share anything with anyone, and see anything any student has uploaded puts a wealth of information and connectivity at your fingertips. But with such an open and flexible platform, it falls to the student to fit the platform to their needs and make use of it.

If you’re that person who buys a planner at the beginning of each school year, only to fill in the first two weeks and never pick it up again, you probably won’t use Xplana to its full potential. However, if you work at it, you can not only make that cram session for the final exam easier, but be better prepared when you get there.

eBook Review – Chegg – The Update

The last time I checked in on the eTextbook platform at Chegg, it was February of this year; what a difference six months has made! While the original system was impressive, the changes are even more so and they are going to help set Chegg apart in the digital arena. Here’s what’s up:

iPhone Reader: Taking advantage of the retina display on iPhone, the new-and-improved Chegg app now has a direct tie to the eTextbook platform. This experience is fully optimized and provides a crisp-and-clean interface that is easy to navigate and easy on the eyes. Want to take it for a spin? The app has a sample eTextbook, so try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.

Notepad: In the first review, I mentioned the notes feature, but the new notepad is a totally revised experience. Clip a quote, grab a picture, or insert a Wikipedia definition into your note page and start a digital record of the notes and parts of the book you find most interesting. This is particularly helpful when going back to study for a test.

Homework Help: The old system had a Q&A component. The new system has deep integration with the Homework Help social interaction that Chegg is really promoting this fall.

Highlights: When I buy a used book, I typically look at the highlighting from the previous owner to see if s/he did a good job calling out useful content. The new highlight feature in Chegg tech allows you to see passages of the book that have been highlighted by other users. I thought this was a great use of digital content, kind of like getting the wisdom of all others who have used the same text.

While You Wait: While this isn’t a feature of the digital book itself, it is a nice feature of the larger process. Now when you order your textbook rental, if you are worried the book will not arrive by the first day of class, you can pay $0.99 to get a digital copy of the book for seven days while you wait for the print copy.

Chegg is setting the bar high for eTextbooks. As I have mentioned in past posts, Chegg needs a digital strategy to ensure its future now that it has serious competition from many rental companies trying to emulate what Chegg started a few years ago. You can tell by recent updates that the folks at Chegg get it, that they understand that they cannot rest upon their rental laurels and that they must continually innovate and that such innovation must come in the form of an interactive digital hub that is mobile friendly.

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge MIYO

Today is a very special edition of our eBook review series. Today we get to take a look at the unique publishing tools offered by Flatworld Knowledge. If you missed our review of the student side of Flatworld, you can check it out here.

As I mentioned in the student side review, all Flatworld Knowledge books are under a creative commons license as opposed to an all rights reserved license that most publisher use. For students this may not mean much but for educators it makes all the difference. Essential this ‘open license’ allows teachers to pick up a standard textbook for their course and customize it to fit their needs.

Flatworld calls this feature MIYO (pronounced Meeyo) which stands for Make It Your Own. When a teacher chooses to use Flatworld, they first sign up with an educator account and then find a book for their course. While not every course will have an appropriate textbook, Flatworld boasts a diverse catalog that covers many of the general credit courses most liberal arts college students are required to take.

After locating the appropriate book, teachers can choose to ‘Adopt This Book’ which puts it into the ‘Your Adoptions’ menu. Adopting a book prompts the teacher to enter a variety of data about their course which allows students to easily find their professors specific book later.

The next step is where MIYO comes in. From the ‘My Adoptions’ menu, teachers can pull up their book in a view almost identical to the student view except they have a variety of editing options. Editing is simple and easy and works a lot like editing a word document. Professors can easily delete any chapter or subsection that isn’t relevant with a single click.

Adding chapters or sections is just as easy, even if writing them is not. Professors can use this feature for anything from simply copy/pasting their lecture notes for each chapter in as a sub section, or they can add an entire chapter to cover something the book leaves out.

Maybe adding an entire chapter is  a bit much, but you’d like to adjust the existing chapters. In the editing view, professors can pull up any section as if to read it, then double click the text to begin editing at the sentence level. Say a professor has been teaching an economics course for a few years and has noticed students have a very hard time with a certain concept. Rather than add a new section, they can simply insert their own additional explanation into the text as supplemental material.

After making adjustments to the text, publishing it takes just a couple clicks and it is ready to be viewed by students. A custom link to your text is provided after making an update which can easily be emailed out to a class list. Even making changes mid semester is easy, and students will see the new material instantly in their online versions.

Of course the best part for students and educators is that the online version of ANY book on Flatworld Knowledge is completely free to read. With basically no barrier to entry, Flatworld Knowledge has changed the game for students and faculty alike. Greater customization and versatility for teachers and free books for students make so much sense it’s hard to believe this platform isn’t the norm already, but it will take time to wrestle a foothold in the industry away from traditional textbook publishers that have had a hold on the market for decades.

eBook Review: Flatworld Knowledge

Here we are with another eBook review, this time for a platform with a rather interesting business model. Today we’re taking a look at Flatworld Knowledge, the self proclaimed “world’s largest publisher of free and open college textbooks.”

Flatworld Knowledge describes themselves as a “college textbook publishing company on a mission.” What mission is that? Simple, to lower the cost of textbooks for students and allow faculty to control the material they teach and the materials their students are required to purchase. How do they do this? First and most importantly by ditching the traditional ‘All Rights Reserved’ license that most publishers use for a ‘Creative Commons license’ which is an open-license. For faculty this means “unprecedented control over content” and “permission to create a derivative version of any textbook.”
Essentially, faculty have the ability to modify any textbook offered by Flatworld Kowledge to custom fit their purposes. This can involve removing materials that won’t be covered in the course, adding links, videos or entirely new passages. As you can see from this search for “Introductory Chemistry,” there are several different versions the text specific to different professors at different universities.

Many college students well tell you it’s very frustrating when you’re forced to purchase an expensive textbook and in the end the professor only covers a portion of it. In addition to cutting out unused material, this control allows professors to insert their own which is arguably much more valuable. Rather than filling lecture slides with notes, links to external materials and videos or images, professors can wrap all this material up in their assigned text, saving them and their students a lot of time and hassle.

The customization of texts is extremely valuable, but lets save that discussion for another review (stay tuned…). Right now we are focusing on the student experience with Flatworld Knowledge. For starters, signing up is simple and straight forward, and searching the catalog by your professor’s name, school name or course name makes finding your customized text easy. After you’ve located your text you must select what format you’d like to use.

To the delight of students everywhere, the basic digital “Free Pass” version is completely free to view through your browser. Next up is the “Study Pass” which has added features such as highlighting, note taking, interactive study tools such as flash cards and “Study View” which gives you a condensed version of key points, objectives and definitions. The most robust version is the “All Access Pass” which gives you all the features of the “Study Pass” as well as a downloadable PDF version for printing and the true eTextbook version for viewing on your iPad, Kindle, Nook or other eReader of choice.

Even the “All Access Pass” is still very inexpensive when compared even to other eTextbook retailers, let alone traditional printed textbooks. However if you just can’t study without a hard copy of the text to flip through and mark up, you can order a black and white printed and bound copy for a bit more than the “All Access Pass.” Or you can spring for the full fledged color textbook for what you’d expect to pay for a book at your school bookstore. To me it seems a bit counter intuitive to purchase a traditional textbook from an etextbook company that is offering the same material for free, but hey, some people just really need a paper version.

For me, it makes the most sense to just bookmark the free browser based version of each book assigned to you. With such a plethora of mobile devices with on board web browsers, it isn’t difficult for most students to get access to their books anywhere, anytime. Nook and Kindle users are out of luck it would seem, but if you’re packing an iPad or smart phone, your FREE textbook can be with you anytime.

The browser based reading experience is surprisingly pleasant. A sidebar of chapters and subchapters makes navigation easy, images are vivid and diagrams are easy to read. A wider view option allows near full screen viewing. I only see two major downsides to sticking with the free version. First is the lack of study tools such as highlighting, note taking and study guides. So for this you’ll have to make a personal judgement about how useful these tools are for you. The second downside is eye fatigue from prolonged use. This is a large selling point for Nook and Kindle users, and if you have one and are prone to extended studying sessions, it might be worth the $40 or so to get the digital eTextbook version.

While the Flatworld platform and unique business model are a solid foundation, their catalog is still growing. They have a good foundation of texts in different disciplines, but their biggest hurdle is adoption among professors. Being a publisher and a retailer, Flatworld must first publish high quality textbooks, then get professors to adopt them for a course, then have the infrastructure to also distribute the text to students. Competitors like Kno and Inkling need only worry about providing a platform for distributing publishing company texts that have already been adopted at schools across the country. It seems the road for Flatworld is largely up hill, but with a unique and adaptable platform such as this, a little traction can go a long way. If the circumstances are right, and adoption increases, Flatworld Kowledge has the potential to be a game changer in the textbook publishing and retail world.

eBook Review: Kno – Follow Up

We last checked in on Kno in October and if you haven’t already read the initial review, I recommend a quick return as the first review covers the general process of buying your book and accessing basic features of the Kno platform. But now it’s nine months later and as with anything in the technology world, things don’t wait for a calendar year to change before they do. So I checked back in on Kno I and found some pretty cool new features.

Pen: This new tool allows you to write your notes anywhere within the digital textbook or any PDF you add to your library. You no longer need to open a new note and type in your comments. You can circle, star, or even doodle in your eBook now. This feature is only available for Kno on iPad.

 

Dropbox: Easily import PDFs or other course materials directly into your course manager in the Kno library. Once imported, any digital document or PDF can take full advantage of the Kno platform. This feature is only available for Kno on iPad.

 

Android and Web Integration: Kno now allows you to access your course manager on iPad, Android (coming soon), and the Web. While the multiple devices are not in synch with one another, this does expand the learning environment if you head home for a weekend and forget your iPad and it surely bodes for further synching in the future.

As we get closer to back-to-school rush, I expect to see more updates from Kno and other eBook technology providers. You can always read about other eBook review, here. Stay tuned and I will keep you updated. In the meantime, stay cool.

Free Textbooks – Crowd funding Your Next Idea

Crowd funding is a term in our new social-media-based society and we should become more comfortable with it and the larger tech-lexicon. Similar to “viral” of a few years back, I am hearing “crowdsourcing” more and more. The concept is basic, but it’s pretty cool and far reaching in its implications. In a nutshell: a person has an idea (such as creating a free textbook), that creator registers and posts the idea on a crowdsourcing funding website such as Kickstarter.com. The post describes the textbook project, why the creator is qualified to proceed, and the vision for the funds and execution. People who believe in the project and contribute money are called “backers” and the project only gets the green light if the target funding is met (or exceeded). The fun part is that the creator can market his or her Kickstarter project and page and even add incentives for various levels of support (think NPR or PBS pledge drive but with stuff cooler than a mug or totebag).

Well, that is just what Brendan Myers, a philosophy professor at Heritage College in Quebec, did. Prof. Myers realized that many of his students would show up to class without the required textbook. After asking them why they didn’t have the book, he was often told that they just couldn’t afford it. To help students in his own classes, Myers decided to write his own textbook (Clear and Present Thinking) and he digitized and emailed PDF copies to his students.

The problem in education — no, one of the problems in education — is that just writing a book isn’t enough to get it widespread use across other campuses. It takes money and time and peer reviews and publisher interest, lots of all. That said, Myers’ text was limited to his classes at his university. At this point he used Kickstarter to develop a campaign to raise the money necessary to create a professional version of his book that could be more widely applicable and distributed.

The original goal of the campaign was to raise $5,000. The campaign recently closed raising $16,872 and funded by 707 backers. Five backers each gave more than $250 while 11 each gave between $100 and $249. Pretty amazing if you ask me and unheard of a couple of semesters ago.

With the extra money, Myers will be creating a French-language edition and audiobook edition of the textbook. With any extra money over $15,000, he will be creating a series of dramatic readings from the works of Plato as the works are core curriculum in philosophy courses across the world. Now that’s a project I can get behind.

eBooks Platform Reviews: The Wrap-Up Show!

As we get deeper into summer, I wanted to spend a moment and recap the eBooks platform reviews we’ve covered over the past six months. This project stems from a discussion I was having about eBooks and the different reader technology on the market. While speaking about each provider, I realized that I had never purchased a book, downloaded it, and tried it, I’d only read hardware specs and handled some devices, but I’d never really knuckled down with a text from start to finish. How could I speak about the different products being used if I hadn’t tried them myself?

First, I tried to think of who the major players were specific to the college textbook space. Then for each book, I wanted to experience it as a student. That said, I never asked for a free copy and instead I went to the company’s website or app, selected a book, and downloaded. While exploring each book, I tried to pay particular attention to the features that were touted by the provider so that I could comment on them (good or bad). By trying to place my mind inside the mind of a student, I was able to look at each book and its overall application in the college setting.

The eBook platforms I covered include:
Chegg
CourseSmart
iBook
iBooks Publishing
Inkling
Kindle
Kno

I was never looking to pick a winner and that remains the case in my approach. Each platform has unique positive and negative features. The one thing that really surprised me was the primitive social features integrated into the eBooks and the lack of thinking “off the page.” The truth is that eBooks have a long way to go. What we have today begins to engage the student in a new way but all the platforms are simply an extension of the physical book. While features such as video, 3D, note cards, highlighting, and more are currently standard features, the book is still stuck in its “chapter” format (that is, it’s a digital version of a print book with a few interactive features that don’t rely on pen-and-paper but mimic them). Until the textbook is truly unbound and digital courses are created from scratch, we will be limited by the small-scale book-mimicry advancements we can make in eBooks.

eBook Review: iBooks Publishing

It’s time for another Textbook Guru eBook review, but as promised in my last article, this time we’re changing it up and reviewing the flip side of eBooks, publishing. Today we are taking a look at the iBooks platform from the perspective of a self publishing author. If you’d like to read up on the iBooks platform from the user end, take a quick look at our iBooks review here.

Before I get into the iBooks publishing process, I must note that there are a wealth of guides available that have more specific detail than I’ll be able to provide here. I should also mention that a large portion of these guides describe what seems to be the ‘PC’ version of epublishing. To publish in iBooks you need the ‘Mac’ version. I started down the PC route, using a third party site called Lulu to prep my article as a .epup file. This is the file format that many eReaders, including Kindle and Nook accept. iBooks prefers the proprietary .ibooks file format, which can only be created using the iBooks Author program.

So, after scrapping my .epub file, I started fresh with iBooks Author, which I found to be simpler to use than the Lulu platform, although the steps were largely the same. For starters, if your book has chapters, you must insert chapter breaks that iBooks can recognize or risk having your book rejected during the uploading process. From what I’ve read, this is a step that a lot of authors stumble on and end up getting their books rejected.

Rather than simply publishing your text like a pdf, you can also take advantage of the versatility of eBooks by adding interactive features like video, clickable links to the web and sliding photo galleries. I took advantage of an iBooks option called ‘media introduction’ which allows you to embed a video that will play before the reader gets to the cover. This is great for introducing your book with a little added context or a personal message from the author.

As soon as you have your formatted .ibooks file, you are ready to begin the publishing process. To publish to iBooks you need to create an iTunes Connect account and download iTunes Producer, Apple’s distribution software. Through iTunes Producer you can upload your book to sell or for free, and manage the back end of your book selling career with analytic tools.

When you’ve created your account and loaded iTunes Producer, you will go through a lengthy but thorough uploading process, similar to the one you went through to prep the file. You will be asked all the pertinent questions such as Author name, what categories iBooks should file your book under and an ISBN if you have one. This is also the stage in which you will actually upload your .ibooks file and your custom cover image.

iBooks is very picky and it’s likely you’re upload will have several errors to fix before it is complete. I had to go back and change information about my upload 5 times before I was able to finish the upload successfully. After uploaded your book will enter an approval process with Apple before it will actually start showing in searches within the iBooks store or on iTunes.

If everything goes smoothly, the upload process will take about an hour from word doc to .ibooks to publishing, however I did several hours of research and fighting technical problems with installing iTunes Producer). For something as simple as the free article I uploaded, the publishing process seems lengthy, but actually it’s just very thorough, which is important both to you and Apple (legally) if you intend to sell your book. Frankly, if I were publishing a book I intended to profit from, this process is extremely easy and quick compared to the traditional route of pitching to publishing companies.

However, after your ebook has been uploaded, it still needs to pass Apple’s approval process. Unfortunately my ebook file was rejected for ‘insufficient length or functionality.’ After following up with iBooks support, I was encouraged to ‘review your book concept and evaluate whether you can incorporate functionality, content, or both to enhance the user experience.” As you may have guessed, the problem for me here is that my article isn’t going to get any longer and it seems the video introduction, image sliders and live links I incorporated did not provide enough ‘functionality.’

Unsatisfied with this answer, I pressed iBooks support for more details, including what the minimum length or functionality is that I am falling short of. Unfortunately their support team was unhelpful, stating that they do not have a ‘published requirement regarding the minimum length of functionality of a book’ yet still asking me to review my book concept for length and functionality and resubmit. I had hoped that having a real human review my book would show them that my book has all the length and functionality it needs to serve it’s purpose, which is to show how easy it is to publish on iBooks.

So, rather than linking to iTunes for you all to download my free eBook, I can only offer you a PDF version of what it would have looked like in iBooks. I believe it was more the length than the functionality of my ebook that caused me trouble. Since it is not very likely that a self publishing author would bother to write a book as short as my article, I imagine other authors will have an easier time passing Apple’s approval process.

The Textbook Unbound

Over the past two months I have attended a few conferences on the future of education. While I was excited to see the many changes headed our way, one thing bothered me: the burdensome attachment to the textbook. It seems that in education, we can’t get past the notion of the textbook. In its most basic sense, the textbook is a bound product by which a systematic path to education is paved, but isn’t there more in this day and age?

If we want to move forward, we need to look beyond the textbook and instead at the larger concept of course materials. The study of biology is not a biology textbook along with lectures built around the book; it is a set of concepts that are collectively used to demonstrate and explain the basics of life on earth. Why do we need to follow chapters 1-22 in order to master these concepts? We don’t.

The future of education is in front of us, the bound textbook is behind us. Innovative educators need to find a way to determine the concepts they want to teach in class and then find the best resources and methods for doing so, not just going back between text and talk. We know that what is valuable is a multi-pronged approach to education: instruction via a combination of video, lectures, handouts, and classroom activities. So why are we so stuck with following a textbook?

If you know you want to teach the anatomy of a neuron, why not use the video from Khan Acacdemy ? I found more than 2.8 million results when searching for this term “anatomy of a neuron” on Google, including video demos, printouts, Podcasts, study guides, and more. Why are these not considered as valid or important as the printed textbook?

Transitioning to these new techniques will likely be time consuming. These new sources are not academically reviewed like the textbooks used in classrooms today. Embracing (and even creating) the new requires the educator to spend time to personally review the content, choose the applicable parts, and then source and deliver the material. But isn’t this a more personalized experience? Is it too personalized? Surely this is a curriculum issue and we can’t have rogue instructors teaching their own pet ideas, but if there could be some method and review, there is a lot to gain by this less-rigid approach.

We are far from this being a reality but imagine how liberating a textbook-free future. Consider the ease of updates without printing: edition changes would really be nothing more than updates to links and handouts and really good teachers can post their information to share with others.

The Web was created so that people could share information without physical boundaries. Education is precisely the field that should be embracing this and harnessing the power to reach more students and provide them with more information that is more flexible and up to date than a printed text from decades ago.

eBook Review: Kindle

Welcome to another Textbook Guru eBook review. We’ve already taken a look at a few other platforms (Chegg, Kno, Inkling, CourseSmart and iBooks) but today we are looking at eTextbooks on the Kindle, from Amazon. Many people think of the Kindle as strictly for fiction books, which has been Amazon’s marketing angle for years. However, the Amazon library boasts an ever increasing collection of eTextbooks ranging from K-12 Chemistry books (like the one I’ve selected) all the way to college level texts.

For this review I’m using a Kindle touch 3G w/special offers which has a 6″ screen and multi-touch interface. The features vary from Kindle to Kindle, most dramatically when you jump to the Kindle Fire which has a full color display but some older models use some sort of physical keyboard for navigation rather than touch screen. The ‘special offers’ model saves you $40 off the purchase price but ‘special offers & sponsored screensavers display on Kindle Touch when you’re not reading.’ Basically you save a bit of money by agreeing to let Amazon sell your screensaver as ad space when you’re not reading.

Features

eInk

The Kindle has made it’s claim to fame on two main features, any time 3G access to the Amazon library of eBooks and it’s revolutionary eInk/ePaper display. While you can’t use your Kindle’s 3G to surf the web, you can use it to download eBooks from the Amazon library from anywhere with cell reception. This feature is included in all Kindles and does not have an extra fee.

The technology behind the Kindle’s display is truly impressive.  The surface of the screen itself actually looks like paper and has no glare or backlight to strain your eyes. The ePaper is backed by a layer of eInk capsules which are black and will either rise up to the ePaper to display black or fall back to display white depending on the electrical charge applied to them. Essentially the display can negatively or positively charge each point on the display to make it show black or grey.

Amazon Library

Whether you’re browsing textbooks or the latest from Oprah’s book club, the Amazon Kindle library boasts over 1 million titles. You have the option to buy or rent your textbooks as long as the rental period is at least 30 days. One thing I like about rentals on the Kindle is that when your rental period is winding down, you’ll get a notification and have the option to do nothing and the book will become unavailable, extend your rental period or you can purchase the book, applying the already charged rental fee towards the total price of the book.

This method of renting seems the most convenient of the platforms I’ve reviewed so far because it is so adaptive to the way students work. For example, it’s hard to say at the start of a term how useful the required book will be or how much the professor will use it. With this method you could start with the 30 day rental and only extend it if you find you are actually using the book enough to justify it. Also, if you get into the class and realize the book isn’t useful, or you drop a class, you have 7 days to return the rental for a full refund.

X-Ray

My favorite feature, X-Ray, was invented by Amazon for the Kindle and is not available in any other eReader. X-Ray is a feature that “Lets customers explore the ‘bones of the book.'” With Xray you can see the definitions of important words, phrases or names and see a visual diagram of every passage that pertains to that word. In textbook this is particularly helpful for understanding core concepts, vocabulary and remembering important people and events. It is also very useful in fiction books, especially those like Game of Thrones or other fantasy novels with hundreds of characters over thousands of pages.

It also works as a sort of heat map for which topics in your book are most important to pay attention to. Like cliff notes of cliff notes, the X-Ray feature lets you see a top level view of what is important in a chapter or section and easily reference all those key vocabulary words you forgot.

Navigation

Being one of the first large market eReaders, the Kindle packs all of the features we assume to be standard across all readers today. Search functionality lets you search the book for terms, search the Kindle Store for related books or search Wikipedia or the Dictionary for definitions.

You also have the ability to highlight words or passages which can be referenced later. Anchoring a note to a selected word or passage is easy, although I found typing on the Kindle to be rather difficult and slow with the ePapers slow refresh rate.

An interesting feature I haven’t seen is the ‘Share’ option which allows you to publish a selected bit of text to your connected social media accounts. This feature is probably not a big hit in textbooks, but I can see how it could be fun to share an interesting passage from a novel you’ve been reading or to brag that you were the first in your book club to finish the book of the month.

One of the hallmarks of the Kindle is how easy it is to read the ePaper display, but it can get even easier (or at least more custom) by adjusting the font settings. The Kindle offers 8 font sizes with #3 being the standard and fitting 100% of the intended words for the page.

Font size #1 fits 160% of the words while font size #8 is so large it will only fit 8% of the words, usually about half a sentence. You can also choose between three type faces, regular, condensed and sans serif depending on your preference. Adjusting spacing is also an option allowing you to choose small/medium/large spacing between lines and between words on each line.

Conclusions

The Kindle has a lot of great things going for it. It has an ePaper display which really does feel like you’re reading paper. It has all the standard functionality you’d expect an eReader to have, allowing you to search, change the text dynamically to your liking and highlighting and note functions for studying. Possibly most important, it has a totally free, always on 3G connection to the vast Amazon eBook library.

However, there are a few ways in which it is lacking. While the ePaper display is easy on the eyes and surprisingly can do great grey-scale images, it is not capable of some of the advanced, interactive features many eTextbooks come with today such as 3D modeling, embedded video, interactive diagrams and so on. It is a hybrid with its two feet firmly planted in the digital and print worlds.

That said, whether or not it will be useful for you boils down to personal preference. If you really love the look and feel of printed books and are skeptical about reading on an iPad for example, the Kindle is a great step in the digital direction. Not to mention your chiropractor will thank you later for not carrying around so many textbooks. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an interactive, digitally connected experience to make your boring paper textbook more interesting, there are other platforms that will serve you better.

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