When it comes to new technology, it's important to remember that there are always upsides and downsides. For example, with digital textbooks there is the downside of not being able to resell the book and recoup the cost, but there is a corresponding upside.
Thanks to digital textbook provider CourseSmart, we now have a new twist on the "my dog ate my homework" excuse.
Numerous reports are coming in from Twitter on Tuesday night that the CourseSmart website is down. At the time I wrote this post it had been down for at least 2 hours with the first complaint tweeted at 6:53 pm eastern. According to one tweet, the CourseSmart website has been down since about 5 pm eastern.
Update: CourseSmart was down until after 11 pm eastern, a span of nearly 6 hours.
Students are reporting that they cannot access their online textbooks, and many are expressing an understandable frustration with CourseSmart:
@coursesmart I pay you $90 to access an online TB. If your site is down, I can't do my homework. See why that might be a problem for me?
— Aidan Cunniffe (@aidandcunniffe) February 27, 2014
CourseSmart has already confirmed that their servers crashed, and they have promised that they are working on the issue and will try to have the servers up and running again ASAP. Unfortunately those promises aren't much help to the students who want to study for their exams tomorrow, or the ones who have a class or test tonight.
Based on the tone and the quantity of tweets, I would hazard a guess that the CourseSmart servers failed under a maximum load - just like last year. Many students are commenting upon the fact that they need to study for a test, and that suggests that we're once again in the middle of an exam week with its corresponding increase in stress and studying.
As frustrating and disappointing as this may be, it probably should not come as a surprise. CourseSmart's servers crashed in April of last year, during what was probably another exam week. Sadly, I think there's a good chance that this may become an annual or even biannual event as digital textbooks become more popular.
And that's truly unfortunate, because this is yet another example of why digital textbooks are not ready for widespread use. Opponents of digital textbooks, like Temple University assistant Professor Meredith Broussard, have a point when they criticize digital content as not being suitable for critical uses like textbooks.
Professor Broussard went public with her objections to digital textbooks last month in The New Republic. She raised a number of issues, including:
For a couple of semesters, I patiently endured students announcing their technical difficulties to the entire class: “Wait, I’m out of juice, I have to find a plug.” “What page is that on? My Kindle has different pages, so I can’t find the passage we’re talking about.” “Professor, do you have an iPad charging cord I could use?” After a while, I realized that I was spending an awful lot of class time doing tech support. The 2-minute interruptions were starting to add up. E-readers were a disruptive technology in the classroom—and not in a good way.
Now that CourseSmart has once again failed during an exam week, it's difficult to argue that she is wrong.
CourseSmart likes to call itself the leading digital textbook platform, but after today's debacle I would not take that claim seriously. But I can say that it is the most widely supported platform and probably the best funded. CourseSmart is owned by a consortium of textbook publishers, with Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill owning the 3 largest shares.
image by Rich Anderson