College students could soon be able to ditch their backpacks and put their textbooks into their shirt pockets thanks to a new program that will let them read their books using iPhones or iPod Touch devices.
CourseSmart of San Mateo, California, already makes more than 7000 college textbooks from 12 publishers available to its subscribers online via their computers, but now the company has added "eTextbooks for the iPhone," allowing students to free themselves from even having to lug around their heavy laptop computers.
There are a couple drawbacks -- you have to be connected to the Internet to view the books you can access with your CourseSmart subscription on your iPhone or iPod Touch, and the first version of the new app doesn't allow users to add notes in the margins.
The app itself is free from Apple's App Store; and it appears that most of the textbooks CourseSmart sells in digital form cost about 60 to 75 percent of the price of their dead tree versions.
This is a cool idea in general, and I can certainly see the benefits -- textbooks sure have gotten bigger and heavier over the years and carrying them around all over your campus is not fun at all -- but miniaturizing your textbooks and being able to take them anywhere also could introduce some problems.
First, we're talking about reading a large textbook on a small iPhone or iPod Touch screen. It may be neat to imagine, but it may not be so easy to use, especially when you are looking for information and you just can't seem to locate it on the device's small screen. How likely is it that students will actually want to do this and will find it as productive as reading a traditional paper book? And what happens when your Internet connection is down and you can't access your books? Believe me, this will happen sometimes.
Then there's the potential for cheating at exam time when students can stealthily view their iPod to get information from an e-textbook to answer a tough exam question. Hey, it could happen. Maybe you'll have to leave your iPhones and iPod Touches at the door as you enter the exam room to prevent cheating. Could we eventually see students being patted down by hand for their iPhones or iPod Touches at exam time as they enter the room?
What about incoming text messages while you are reading your books on your iPhone? Now, that would be distracting because they'd be hard to avoid. At least if you are not using your iPhone as an e-book reader, then you can tuck it away or turn it off so you're not distracted while reading. This would be a new challenge for students.
OK, maybe I'm being too practical or cautious. Maybe this is the coolest thing since the Student Union on Friday nights, but I'm not yet ready to jump on this bandwagon.
(Todd R. Weiss is a freelance technology journalist who formerly wrote for Computerworld.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TechManTalking)