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NotePods: A Downloadable Alternative to Cliffs Notes?

There's a new rival to Cliffs Notes - the study guides sometimes read by students who'd rather not read the original piece of literature - no matter how famous. Now a company is offering NotePods - downloadable summaries of some of the great classics. They are not books on tape in their entirety - merely summaries of the plot and the main characters. While the company touts them as a new innovative study aid, some educators have their doubts.

None of the five high school students I talked to for this story had heard about NotePods - but just like generations of students before them, they've heard of and several admit to using Cliffs Notes.

"Have you ever been assigned some great novel to read and you used the Cliffs Notes instead?"

"I've used Cliffs Notes. I forget what book it was for, though. I think it's a lot of books," says Shana Pearlman. "Probably To Kill A Mockingbird for sure."

Pearlman from Canton owns an IPod but has not tried NotePods.

So far there are about 50 titles available including Animal Farm, The Scarlet Letter, and Moby Dick.

Each audio summary is downloadable for $1.99. The company, Interlingua Educational Publishing, hopes to offer hundreds of required reading titles before the end of 2008. According to president Jack Bernstein, NotePods are different from their printed counterparts. For example, he says, no critical analysis is included.

"We basically tell the story," Bernstein says. "We don't have any criticism, any analysis in it. Talking about Moby Dick. To us the whale's a whale. To us it goes up, it goes down, it breathes, it breaks up ships and people hunt it."

There's no discussion that the whale is a symbol of evil, Bernstein says. A disclaimer at the beginning of each NotePods download suggests it's only a supplement to the original work and is intended to be used as a study aid.

Rick Voithofer, an assistant professor of Educational Technology at Ohio State University, says there may be some value to an audio summary. But he says that relying on that summary alone would short-change the student.

"I think that one of the reasons why the books I see listed here are considered classics [is that they] are known for the language that they use," Voithofer says. "When you offer them as a summary you lose the language that the author originally wrote. So I wonder what a plot summary would provide one."

It would be useful, according to Bernstein, if the language was so difficult that it could not be understood by today's high school or college students.

"Shakespeare is the biggest seller that we have," Berstein says. "It really represents well over 50% that people download. And I can see why, because students may have trouble understanding the play and that's worth the study aid. Once I understand what's happening I understand what people are doing."

Shana Pearlman says Cliffs Notes helped her understand Shakespeare.

Yes, Hamlet. It's harder to read it from the English back then. You know it's easier when it's in words you know. And it's shorter!"

Shorter and less of a distraction worries OSU's Professor Voithofer. Reading, he says, requires a certain amount of mental activity that may be lost by listening instead.

"Yes you could listen to it while walking to class or doing other things but at least when you're sitting down to read your attention is on reading but if you've got an IPod on and you're doing something else, how much attention are you really giving it?"

But Pearlman says she'll try NotePods if she can.

"I'd probably use that. I use my IPod a lot," Pearlman says.