Algonquin’s e-textbook project is only two months into its fourth year, but it continues to be bombarded with widespread criticism, according to Jack Wilson, first vice president of the faculty union.
“This year has been the most difficult for students and staff in terms of type and magnitude of the problems,” said Wilson.
He said that many students received the access codes for their purchased e-books that are only usable in the next semester, while they need their books now. The code is provided by Texidium, the main provider of e-text reader to Algonquin, which acts as the intermediate between publishers and colleges.
Unfortunately, this is not the only problem.
“They told us that if we wanted a hard copy of the text book we would have to pay for them both [the electronic version and the printed version],” recounted Ian Ferguson, a first-year recreation and leisure service student.
“During the second week of school, I went to download my e-textbook. I typed in the code but it said it had already been used, which is weird since I never used it or downloaded it.”
Ferguson said that the experience was “very frustrating” since Texidium told him he had already downloaded it and he would have to pay again if he wanted a new code.
The e-textbook project was a prototype at Algonquin in January 2013 and was gradually adopted by more programs and students ever since.
“What we are doing in Algonquin is absolutely the first of its kind in North America,” said Larry Weatherdon, e-textbook project manager and retail service manager at Connections, the campus bookstore.
What started out with 750 students across six different programs has developed into a major feature of learning at Algonquin. Out of 180 courses, 100 courses have been either partially or completely transitioned into the new platform, with more than 14,000 students involved.
According to Weatherdon, the bulk of minor technical problems with the e-text reader comes from incompatibility with individual devices.
“Did Texidium have the file available? Was it functional? Yes,” he said. “The problem is when students have devices that are unique, like older laptops, last-generation laptops, or the iOS devices not updated.”
While he emphasized the advantage of an e-textbook converted to be read by an e-reader over the traditional PDF file, he said that the problem lies not in converting a file, but in making devices read that file effectively. When Microsoft RT was introduced, instead of being “the tablet of the future” it was a disaster because it couldn’t read any of the e-textbook properly, according to Weatherdon.
It is this kind of unforeseeable factors, he said, that make the project problematic and “challenging.”
One of the biggest complaints from Wilson, however, is about the misplacement of orders. For some reason, he said, the bookstore didn’t use the e-text adoption list which they had gathered from faculty at the beginning of the year. They instead used a list from last year to proceed with the order, which created trouble since many students, including those in Wilson’s heath and community studies class, didn’t like the electronic version.
Weatherdon denied this claim, however.
“The database Wilson was referring to was not available for about three days. The system went down,” he said.
But no information was lost in this phase. After this, there was a manual process of validation.
“This created a problem. Some of the digital requests were wrong,” said Weatherdon. “They were in many cases solved immediately but the one for Jack Wilson may not have gone through correctly. But we never pulled from old data, we pull from current data.
Further, he said, the system is not fully automated and there are a few manual interventions along the way. Somewhere in between when a faculty member files to demand a book and when he communicates this with his program support officer, “something didn’t get recognized at checkbox.”
Another sort of problem comes from miscommunication and misunderstanding of the system.
“There was a professor who said she found a book on Amazon that only cost $30 while it is charged $140 at school,” said Farbod Karimi, chair of the Learning and Teaching Services. “We found that she misunderstood: the $140 was for three books, not one.”
In reaction to these problems, Weatherdon said that a new solution will be adopted by May 1, so that when the school starts next Fall there should be no more problems.
And despite the complaints by faculty and students, both Karimi and Weatherdon stressed the relevance of e-textbook in modern colleges.
The project is being adopted in some Ontario high schools. Weatherdon said that this created an expectation from the generation that would soon become fellow Algonquin students.
“We just want to be ready for them – that’s the whole plan,” said Weatherdon.
Even for current students, the attitude towards e-text is not entirely negative.
Although Ferguson said e-textbook was hard for him to concentrate, he nevertheless wanted to have both versions of a book so that he would not have to bring a physical one to class every day and could study more at home.
Some students say the e-textbook project has made textbooks more accessible to them. Take the medical radiation technology program for example. The cost for its textbook at Level 1 was $1,900, while the electronic version is just $950. Previously, according to Farbod, there’s only about 40 per cent of the students who actually got their book.
Algonquin’s e-textbook pioneering is now followed by 35 institutions across Canada.
“They want to know how we did it,” said Weatherdon. “All of these institutions are starting on the process that we started four years ago.
“We went through difficult learning curve, but now everybody wants to find out what the problems are so they don’t have to go through the same kind of problem. We are sharing it with them,” he said.