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U.Va. students test e-books

Two Classes Use Innovative Curriculum, Fostered By Etext Center And Using Microsoft Software

May 23, 2001-- This past semester, students and professors in two University of Virginia classes -- one in English, the other religious studies -- tested the effectiveness of electronic books in an educational environment. The students used compact, handheld personal computers to read most of their assigned reading materials as e-books.

The U.Va. Library's Electronic Text Center (Etext), which operates one of the world's largest and busiest public e-book libraries, worked with Microsoft Corp. and electronic course material publisher Xanedu to provide the students the tools they needed to read their materials as interactive e-books using Microsoft Reader software.

The project sought to gather feedback from the students and professors on how well the e-books integrated into their curriculum. This included the students’ reactions to having most of the course materials on one device. They also wanted to understand whether such technology changes teaching and learning, and if so, how.

"This experiment may prove a useful first step in determining what role e-books should play in education's future," said David Seaman, Etext Center director.

For the project, each student received a Pocket PC, donated by Microsoft Research, which came preloaded with the Microsoft Reader software and other Microsoft programs that gave the small computer more powerful mobile uses. The Pocket PC has a 32-megabyte memory that can store 80 to 90 e-books. The Microsoft Reader software provides a book-like reading interface, annotations, dictionary features, and Microsoft's ClearType display technology. The Etext Center staff loaded each Pocket PC with the required e-books for the semester and trained the students and professors to use the device and its software.

The Etext Center recruited classes that already had most of their assigned reading materials in electronic form. It wanted to work with professors interested in using the technology, but who did not have much experience using e-books, thus eliminating any biases. The center selected Benjamin Ray, a religious studies professor, who used his class in "Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature" for the project, and English professor Cynthia Wall and her graduate-level seminar on the depiction of space in 18th- and 19th-century literature.

The Etext Center and Microsoft are evaluating how effective the e-books were and will use their findings for future planning. Seaman says that while they have not fully analyzed the test results, some advantages of e-books were apparent at the outset.

Much of the assigned reading material for both classes included older, out-of-print or unpublished writings. This situation previously had forced professors to use reviews or secondary sources, which could contain biases.

Using the original writings as e-books, however, allowed the students instant, direct access to the primary sources, so they could form their own opinions about the work. Another e-book advantage is that one easy-to-carry, handheld device contained most of the course material, giving students the freedom and convenience of accessing their readings whenever and wherever they please.

Seaman says, "E-books are an evolving technology. We want to gauge how we fit into this technology and where we should go as a supplier of electronic texts."

The U.Va. Library Electronic Text Center, founded in 1992, was the first of its kind. It provides Internet access to humanities-related texts, and in eight months, it delivered 2.5 million e-book files to users in 100 countries. For more information, see its Web site at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu.

Contact: Melissa Norris, (804) 924-4254

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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