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The Device Versus the Book

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, by making readings for three courses available in Kindle format instead of delivering them through the course management system. 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, a school that prides itself as a leader in adopting new technologies in higher education, wanted to play a role in shaping how these devices might be designed, so that students can someday walk onto campus and have their materials delivered to them via any device they prefer.4

Each school ran its pilot in courses that used texts without color graphs or complex illustrations, so that the known limitations of the devices’ E Ink grayscale electronic-paper display wouldn’t be a hindrance in the students’ learning.

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. As a Princeton student who participated in the school’s pilot program, which wrapped up in February 2010, wrote in a post-pilot survey, “This is the future, but we’re not quite there yet.”

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. A number of other schools, including Syracuse University (NY) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have voluntarily refused widespread deployment of the Kindle as a textbook replacement until it is fully accessible to sight-impaired students.

Currently the Kindle DX has text-to-speech capabilities within the e-books it displays, but those capabilities don’t extend to the menu interface. Chris Danielsen, spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind, explains why this is a problem for his organization: “If you can’t see the screen, then you can’t download the book, or open the book, or even get the text-to-speech capabilities started to read the book. You have a technology that blind people just can’t use at all.”

Danielsen insists that it’s not the NFB’s intention to hinder the adoption of new technologies on campus. “The National Federation of the Blind absolutely supports e-book technology as a resource for everyone,” he says. “But it needs to be a resource for everyone. Our hope is that these early actions are moving things in the right direction.”

In response to the actions of the NFB and the ACB, Amazon announced in December 2009 that the next Kindle upgrade, scheduled for the summer of 2010, will feature accessibility improvements, including an audible menu system. “If that happens, the NFB will be the first to commend Amazon for doing it,” Danielsen says. “But we need to wait and see those accessibility features. We simply cannot afford for blind students to be left behind by this technology.”

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. A marker appears next to the annotated text; highlighting the marker with the cursor will display the notation. Notes, which are saved in a folder on the device, can later be uploaded to a computer and copied into a Word or other document.

In theory, these features would seem to perfectly match students’ needs. However, the Kindle’s small keyboard makes the annotation process very labor-intensive. Janet Temos, director of Princeton’s Educational Technologies Center, explains: “Because the keyboard is so small, and because there was a significant latency between typing the note and the note appearing on screen, a lot of students found that they were overtyping. Many of the students got fed up with the keyboard, so they would just read on their Kindle and make notes in a separate notebook.” 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. “I think the first [e-reader] manufacturer that figures out how to make a PDF that you can also annotate is going to snag this market,” Temos predicts.

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. “When they compared annotating texts on the Kindle to what they were used to with paper text, they found that paper text was simpler for them,” Sannier says. He is hesitant, though, to say that this problem is primarily because of a deficiency in the device, when it could just as easily be that the students need to adapt to using a new technology. “[ASU is] going to look at whether this is something that students get used to in the second semester of the pilot and eventually prefer, or if it remains consistent that they continue to prefer paper,” he says. “I think we don’t know that yet.”

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. “The highlighting on the Kindle isn’t actually highlighting; it just makes an underline,” Temos explains. “The students want something more emphatic than that.” Students also found it awkward to highlight long passages using the trackball. “Highlighting over a page break on the Kindle is a real feat,” Temos laughs. “If you actually extend your highlight from one page to the next you feel a real sense of accomplishment.”

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. “They couldn’t highlight. They couldn’t take notes,” he recalls. “It didn’t have the functionality that they needed. Within a couple weeks, there was a lot of push-back from the users of the Reader.” Adds Jon Rickman, vice president of information systems at Northwest Missouri, “After getting all of [the students’] feedback, it was decided that they’d be happier with notebook versions of e-textbooks, using VitalSource Bookshelf—and they were. They were able to highlight and annotate the way they wanted to on most of the books when viewed on their laptops.”

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 so they can access the information they need.

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. As Temos explains, “People were more positive about the devices at midterms than they were at finals. They felt like they didn’t retain as much because they couldn’t do that quick review by using their thumbs to flip through pages. They wanted to be able to quickly flip through pages the way they can on the iPhone.”

The Kindle DX and Sony Reader page-flipping limitations are an effect of the E Ink electronic-paper display technology, which displays images through a matrix of tiny microcapsules that contain positively and negatively charged white and black beadlike particles. The screen resets itself each time the user turns a page. “Every time you turn the page it has to think ‘Do I have to turn white or black now?’” Temos says, “and there’s a black flash in between each turn of the page that delays the process.”

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. “Flicking through a set of pages on a Kindle is a slower process.” He adds that there are additional ways to find a specific passage on a Kindle—for example, using the device’s search function—but that could take just as long if the device is not already in the search mode or if the student is not yet familiar with the most effective ways to use the search function.

“If you’re not utilizing the device in its native way, then maybe you’ll find it more frustrating,” observes Sannier. “I think that’s one of the things that [ASU will] have to wait and see at the end of our pilot—does this thing improve with age? Or is it true that the interplay between the keyboard and the search function is just not as fast in a classroom setting where you have to do a lot of flipping back and forth between pages?”

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. This limitation became a big problem with the Princeton students, who access many short readings on their devices rather than full books. Serge Goldstein, associate CIO and director of Princeton’s office of information technology, points out, “If you have six courses, each of which is assigning 100 to 200 readings, you can’t have a long linear list of those readings. You have to be able to organize it somehow—by your courses would be the most straightforward. But there’s no way to do that directly on the Kindle. They [Amazon] realize that that’s something they have to fix if the device is going to be successful.”4

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. Interestingly, the undergrad and graduate students who participated in the Kindle DX and Sony Reader pilots had differing expectations of how much functionality an e-reader should provide.

The Princeton students who participated in the Kindle pilot—mostly graduate students—actually liked that the device was designed solely for reading. At the end of the pilot, Temos asked her participants what their ideal e-reader would be. “Although many of them said they thought a netbook would be ideal, a very large proportion of the students wanted a dedicated e-reader with good note-taking,” she recalls. “They actually said, ‘I get distracted by the internet on my computer. The Kindle made me a better reader because I didn’t have that distraction.’”

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. A charge typically lasts up to two weeks depending on whether or not the wireless connectivity is engaged. “Our students all loved the battery life of the Kindle,” says Temos, “and they realized that the fact that the battery lasts so long was related to the fact that [the device] had this [E Ink] technology in it. Oddly enough, many of them said they wouldn’t trade fancier features if it would make the battery life shorter.”

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. They really just wanted it in the technology environment that they were accustomed to and already using heavily every day.”

Northwest Missouri issues laptop computers to all of its students, so they were already accustomed to learning in an environment that mixed online and digital sources with traditional textbooks and lectures. “Our students were used to reading extra material that their instructors loaded up on them,” Rickman explains. “They were used to jumping out to Google to search on a term or a topic, right in the middle of looking at other materials on their laptop. They were used to looking at their [online] syllabus, their course management system, their online testing—they were really used to going to their laptop to work on their course materials, search for library citations, and all of that. And the truth was,” he adds, “the e-textbook was the keystone of the arch of learning resources. The notebook was supporting the arch, and it didn’t make as much sense to reach out to another tool that wasn’t connected to that arch. If the e-reader can’t replace the notebook computer, it becomes just another device [students] need to carry around. They’ve got a cell phone, an iPod, a notebook, and now they need to carry an e-reader?”

Yet, accessing an e-textbook on a notebook computer is still less than ideal for academic reading. Notes Rickman’s colleague, Von Holzen, “We’re down to one class using an e-textbook [on a notebook], because even though the notebook is much better [than an e-reader]—you can have color, you can have animation, you can link out to the internet—it’s still clumsy to read. Students don’t want to sit there and read a 32-page chapter on their notebook computers.”

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.”

E-merging E-Readers

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. “It will be interesting to see what the feedback is. If it doesn’t provide that interface to the rest of the arch—the course syllabus, the course management system, the online library—then I think most students will continue using their notebook computers as e-readers.”

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.”


Amazon Kindle DX:

Apple iPad:

Barnes & Noble Nook:

Sony Reader:

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