Are eReaders missing the mark?

At the EducationalAppStore we define M-learning as technology-enabled learning solutions available to learners anytime, anywhere, through any portable device, such as a tablet, laptop or mobile phone. One of the most obvious areas within which education can benefit from M-learning technology, is e-reading. Paper, space, time and load are just some of the things that come to mind when we think about how digital reading is beneficial for both the user and the environment. However a new study from the University of Washington suggests that eReaders aren’t quite there yet when it comes to providing students with a real, digital alternative to traditional paper-based reading.

The idea of being able to store all books digitally, without the need for cluttering bookshelves and stacks of reading papers, is certainly an appealing one for the modern academic.

The idea of being able to store all books digitally, without the need for cluttering bookshelves and stacks of reading papers, is certainly an appealing one for the modern academic. So much so, that some American colleges and universities have, or are currently running pilot schemes on the use of eReaders for academia. At the beginning of term, Computer Science students at the University of Washington were given a new Kindle DX eReader to complete all academic reading, with the view that it would ‘dramatically reduce printing and its environmental impact and cost’ whilst also ‘reducing textbook cost and backpack weight’. Two great assumptions in theory, but as the study progressed; it became apparent that the eReader did not provide the students with the level of functionality needed to confidently say that it could replace paper-based reading. And, less than half way through the study, around 60% of the participants said they were not doing any academic reading on the device at all.

So where did it all go wrong? The notions of saving are so inviting! Well, below is a summary of the main findings of the study, and what this means for the role of eReaders in academia.

  • Students did most of their reading in fixed locations: 47 percent of reading was at home, 25 percent at school, 17 percent on a bus and 11 percent in a coffee shop or office.

This makes the idea of the eReader not as attractive as once imagined, as in most ‘fixed locations’ students have access to a computer and so would do their reading on that.

  • The Kindle DX was more likely to replace student’s paper-based reading than their computer-based reading.

This leans to the ‘space and load saving’ attribute of the eReader, proving that it can be used to in such a way to reduce the amount of textbooks that a student may have to carry and/or store at home.

  • Of the students who continued to use the device, some read near a computer so they could look up references or do other tasks that were easier to do on a computer. Others tucked a sheet of paper into the case so they could write notes.

This proves that the eReader is not a stand-alone device which can perform all necessary functions needed for academic reading.

  • With paper, three quarters of students marked up texts as they read. This included highlighting key passages, underlining, drawing pictures and writing notes in margins.

Academic reading is not just reading! It is highlighting, note-taking, underlining, skimming, flicking, and so on.

  • A drawback of the Kindle DX was the difficulty of switching between      reading techniques, such as skimming an articles illustrations or references just before reading the complete text. Students frequently made such      switches as they read course material.

Shows eReaders inability to offer flexible reading options / techniques; instead the process becomes less flexible and more cumbersome.

However, most of these points are negative and I would just like to point out the few positive features of eReaders that can actually make studying easier. The ability to search a full document for one word or phrase, for example, is an invaluable tool when trying to recall quotes or passages. The user can locate the searched word instantly, saving the scouring of text and frantic flicking of pages. Another very useful feature is the ability to store books and associated notes on the device’s cloud storage service – something I know I would have been very keen to use during my time of lugging endless stacks of papers and books around Uni!  The cloud service is included free of charge with all Kindle eReaders, however is a chargeable extra on some devices such as Sony’s PRS-T1.

Another point to note is that this study (and other similar studies) look only at university-level academic reading and do not assess the eReader’s role in the classroom at all levels. The paper-saving possibility of eReaders for in-class reading and handouts is undeniable. No longer would teachers need to hand out twenty+ sheets, five times a day – an eReader could be supplied at the beginning of class or at the beginning of the year, preloaded with all the required texts for the year making a saving for both the institution and the environment!

An eReader can be used to reduce the amount of textbooks that a student may have to carry and/or store at home.

And of course no one can deny eReaders success in the casual reading market – hardly one train journey goes by that I don’t see someone using a Kindle or Nook! Which is much better than seeing people glued to Facebook!So it seems there are many positives to owning an eReader – whether you are using it for pleasure or for.. pain(!), at the very least it will come in handy and save you lugging a couple books next time you go on holiday.  However, the main points of this study show that eReaders are just not giving students and academics what they need to complete reading on a digital device. And yet the need is there, the want is there, so why is the product not there?

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