Campus Technology / 05-01-10 / Jennifer Demski
When it comes to meeting the demands of academic reading, today’s e-readers are not yet ready to replace the textbook.
Electronic readers may be ushering in a watershed moment in personal reading, with the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and Barnes & Noble Nook duking it out for market dominance (and with the iPad warming up in the wings). But how do these contenders fare in the academic marketplace? In theory, e-reader devices seem ideal as a replacement for the expensive, heavy, traditional textbook—even more so, perhaps, than for the beach-compatible paperback book, which can take heavy doses of sand, suntan lotion, salt water, and trampling feet and still deliver the goods!
But reading for learning is not the same activity as reading for pleasure, and so the question must be asked: Do these devices designed for the consumer book market match up against the rigors of academic reading?
Campus Technology recently spoke with three universities that conducted e-reader pilots on their campuses to address that question. Northwest Missouri State University tested the Sony Reader PRS-505 during the 2008-2009 school year, while Princeton University (NJ) and Arizona State University are participating in a pilot of the Kindle DX with five other universities over the course of the 2009-2010 school year.
Each university had different motivations for testing the devices.
Princeton, which often uses e-reserves and secondary readings rather than textbooks in its courses, hoped the Kindle DX could help reduce the 50 million pages that were printed on campus last year, ... . Northwest Missouri provides laptops and textbooks to its students, and was looking for a reader that met the needs of students across disciplines and that could be implemented campuswide. ASU ... wanted to play a role in shaping how these devices might be designed, ... .
Each school ran its pilot in courses that used texts without color graphs or complex illustrations, so that the known limitations of the devices’ ... .
There were qualities of both the Kindle DX and Sony Reader that the students felt showed promise, and that made them enthusiastic for the day when e-readers’ functionality as an academic tool becomes a reality. These features include the easy-to-read E Ink screen; the size, weight, and durability of the devices; and the long battery life. But students encountered limitations in the devices that made them inadequate for reading academic texts. [snip].
Accessibility for the Blind
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) recently reached a settlement agreement with Arizona State University and the other universities that participated in the Kindle DX pilot program, prohibiting the universities from further deploying the Kindle or any other e-readers until the technology is accessible to sight-impaired students. [snip].
Students’ Expectations for Academic Reading
Academic reading is an exercise that requires the reader to be able to interact with text in ways that will aid his retention and understanding of the material. Whether they’re reading a biology textbook or Paradise Lost, students need to be able to highlight important passages, make notes in the margins of the text, and quickly skim through passages to refresh and compare information. In all three pilots, the students felt that e-readers were not yet ready to meet these academic needs.
Annotating and highlighting
The Kindle DX allows users to create annotations within texts. Using a small trackball in the lower-right corner of the device underneath its keyboard, readers move a cursor to the text they’d like to annotate, click, and begin typing. [snip].
In theory, these features would seem to perfectly match students’ needs. However, the Kindle’s small keyboard makes the annotation process very labor-intensive. [anip] Also, the Kindle allows readers to make annotations only in e-book-format files, meaning that students couldn’t insert notes on any PDF-format files that were on the devices. [snip].
Adrian Sannier, former university technology officer at ASU (he recently moved to Pearson eCollege as vice president of product), where students were still in their second semester of their pilot at press time, reports a similar student reaction to the annotation capabilities of the Kindle. [snip].
Highlighting text with the Kindle was not much easier or more satisfying for Princeton students. Much of the difficulty was due to the inability to highlight in color on the grayscale E Ink screen. [snip].
The Sony Reader PRS-505 model piloted at Northwest Missouri had even fewer highlighting and annotation capabilities than the Kindle DX. Roger Von Holzen, director of the school’s Center for Information Technology in Education, reports that students participating in the pilot quickly became very frustrated with the device’s performance in an academic setting. [snip].
Since the Northwest Missouri pilot, Sony has released two updated versions of the Reader, which the company says have highlighting and annotation capabilities. The PRS 700, which was released in 2008 (but not in time for the pilot), included a stylus for freehand highlighting and annotation. In 2009, Sony released a new line of readers that includes the Reader Touch Edition (PRS 600), in which notes can be aggregated and exported as RTF files. (Amazon did not respond to CT requests for comment on this story.)
Skimming, search, and navigation
When reading traditional books, it’s easy to take the act of flipping pages for granted; it’s an inherent part of the process. In academic reading, it’s also essential. Whether students are studying for exams, comparing passages in separate texts, or following along in class, they need to be able to thumb quickly through their books ... .
One of the biggest frustrations among the Princeton participants, especially once finals arrived, was the inability to skim and flip through pages on their Kindle DX as quickly as they could with a traditional textbook. [snip].
The Kindle DX and Sony Reader page-flipping limitations are an effect of the E Ink electronic-paper display technology, ... .
ASU students also noted page-flipping as an issue, especially in the classroom. “Students are used to being able to flick through a set of pages to find the passage that the instructor is referencing,” Sannier says. [snip]
Navigation and search on the Kindle are issues that extend from within the e-book’s content out to the file listings on the Kindle’s web-based menu. E-book titles and individual readings are displayed as a single list; the user cannot organize related readings into folders or other groupings. [snip]
Students’ Expectations of Technology
For students to add another electronic device to their arsenal of laptop computers, smartphones, MP3 players, and the like, the device must fulfill a need that’s not met by those other devices—and it must meet that need in a way that makes it essential to the learning experience. [snip].
Princeton students also recognized that the E Ink screen—which in many ways limits the device’s academic functionality, especially when it comes to illustrations, highlighting, and page-turning—is the reason the Kindle DX’s battery life is as long as it is. [snip]
The undergrads who piloted the Sony Reader at Northwest Missouri had much different expectations for the technological functionality of their devices. “You know the race to see who can get the most apps on their cell phone?” Rickman asks. “That race demonstrates how students think about technology now. It didn’t take them long to think of all the things they wanted these devices to do, and all of a sudden they wanted to be able to highlight and annotate, they wanted to access multimedia clips, they wanted to follow links out to websites. [snip].
It’s not clear how much manufacturers want to expand the functionality of their e-readers to be more multipurpose machines. Amazon has made no official pronouncements about moving in this direction. And a spokesperson from Sony said by way of comment: “General-purpose devices are great at doing a lot of things pretty well—our focus will remain on investing in and creating devices that are exceptional for digital reading.”
So, what is the ideal e-reader for students? Northwest Missouri’s Rickman sees the assimilation of e-readers into the academic setting as a merger process, with notebook computers becoming friendlier for reading books and textbooks while e-readers incorporate more of a computer’s capabilities—and he thinks Apple’s iPad will be the device that sets off this process. “The iPad is the beginning of this merger,” Rickman states. [snip].
ASU’s Sannier has similar musings about the iPad: “When the students talk about what they’d like to see in a next-generation device, a lot of them say they’d like to see touchscreen navigation, which I think is probably good news for people that want to sell iPads.”
With the iPad, though, one important aspect of the e-reader is being lost—the E Ink screen. Though Von Holzen is anxious to see if the iPad is the device that will meet his students’ needs, he worries that the backlit screen won’t be as readable as the E Ink screen when dealing with long chapters assigned for academic reading. Otherwise, he says, the iPad promises “a good portion of what we’re looking for: portability, internet access, color screen, interactivity, video, and things like that all built in. That’s getting close to what we’re looking for.”