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Northwest Missouri State U. Tries E-Book Readers, With Mixed Results

Several students at Northwest Missouri State University recently traded their printed textbooks for Sony’s e-book reading devices, which came loaded with assigned texts. But the students quickly discovered that the gadgets have limitations.

In a pilot program during the fall semester, about 240 students were loaned Sony Readers, and university officials contracted with McGraw Hill to provide electronic textbooks for four courses.

Students were initially fascinated with their readers, said Dean L. Hubbard, the university’s president, but they soon became frustrated with the devices’ limited interactivity capabilities — which made it impossible to highlight passages, cut and paste text, or participate in interactive quizzes.

“This is a tremendous attention getter; it’s not as good an attention holder,” said Mr. Hubbard of the Sony Reader. But Mr. Hubbard added that he thinks similar devices will be extremely popular in the long run, once their features have improved.

This semester the university will continue to experiment with electronic textbooks, but it will deliver them primarily through laptops, rather than dedicated e-book devices. (The institutions requires students to have laptops.) About 500 students will try out electronic textbooks, and an additional 3,000 students will have access to them.

Laptops provide more interactivity than the Sony Readers, Mr. Hubbard said, because they let students participate in interactive quizzes and allow professors to add material to textbooks as needed.

A small group of students will also test out a new version of the Reader, which Sony says will offer increased interactivity, according Mr. Hubbard.

Northwest Missouri State currently spends about $800,000 a year on its rental textbook program, which allows its students to acquire books at a fraction of the cost of buying them, Mr. Hubbard said. Switching to electronic textbooks could shave as much as 50 percent off that figure, he added.

Mr. Hubbard himself is a devoted fan of the Kindle e-book reader, sold by Amazon, and he has pledged never to read a non-electronic book again. He said he is optimistic that electronic textbooks “will catch on like prairie fire,” especially once students, professors, and administrators realize how much money they could save by using them. —David Shieh

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