Posting in Design
New studies of university e-book adoption uncover issues with learning, retention and clunkiness of browsing through digital material.
E-books may be the wave of the future, but it seems members of Generation Y -- you know, the digital generation -- still prefer their books in print, and find some aspects of e-reading to be clunky.
Researchers at the University of California and the California Digital Library recently released results of a survey that found a majority of students (58%) now use e-books, but most still prefer print formats. Of the 2,400 survey respondents who indicated a preference, 49% say they prefer print books, 34% prefer e-books, and 17% had no preference or described a preference that is usage-dependent.
Larger numbers of graduate students are more favorably inclined to e-books, but almost six out of ten undergrads indicated the highest preference for print books (58%). In fact, according to the survey report, "many undergraduate respondents commented on the difficulty they have learning, retaining, and concentrating while in front of a computer."
The main beef with e-books was the difficulty annotating and highlighting within e-book environments, perceived as vital to the majority of respondents who use academic e-books. "For those indicating a preference for print books, dissatisfaction with e-book annotation tools is frequently mentioned as a stumbling block to e-book adoption."
For further perspective, Nick Carr, famous for poo-pooing many of the perceived benefits of digital technology on enterprises and society, surfaced the California study and another one out of the University of Washington on his Website. "When it comes to buzzy new computer technologies, schools have long had a tendency to buy first and ask questions later," he sniffs.
The UW study also throws some cold water on the rush to e-books in academic settings. In the study, 39 graduate students were given Amazon Kindle DXes to integrate into their course readings. While some of the study’s findings were expected – students want improved support for taking notes, checking references and viewing figures – the authors also found that allowing people to switch between reading styles, and providing the reader with physical cues, are two challenges that e-readers will need to address in cracking the college market.
The UW last year was one of seven U.S. universities that participated in a pilot study of the Kindle DX, a larger version of the popular e-reader. “There is no e-reader that supports what we found these students doing,” observed lead researcher Alex Thayer, a UW doctoral student in Human Centered Design and Engineering. “It remains to be seen how to design one. It’s a great space to get into, there’s a lot of opportunity.”
“Most e-readers were designed for leisure reading – think romance novels on the beach,” said co-author Charlotte Lee, a UW assistant professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering. “We found that reading is just a small part of what students are doing. And when we realize how dynamic and complicated a process this is, it kind of redefines what it means to design an e-reader.”
Some of the other schools participating in the pilot project conducted shorter studies, generally looking at the e-reader’s potential benefits and drawbacks for course use. The UW study looked more broadly at how students did their academic reading, following both those who incorporated the e-reader into their routines and those who did not.
“We were not trying to evaluate the device, per se, but wanted to think long term, really looking to the future of e-readers, what are students trying to do, how can we support that,” Lee said.
By spring quarter of 2010, seven months into the study, less than 40 percent of the students were regularly doing their academic reading on the Kindle DX. Reasons included the device’s lack of support for taking notes and difficulty in looking up references. (Amazon Corp., which makes the Kindle DX, has since improved some of these features.)
UW researchers continued to interview all the students over the nine-month period to find out more about their reading habits, with or without the e-reader. They found that the Kindle DX was more likely to replace students’ paper-based reading than their computer-based reading. However, as observed with the UCal study, the e-readers lacked annotation capabilities: 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."
Another drawback of the Kindle DX, it was observed, "was the difficulty of switching between reading techniques, such as skimming an article’s illustrations or references just before reading the complete text. Students frequently made such switches as they read course material."
Finally, Thayer, Lee and the other authors observe that "the digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read."
Lee predicts that over time software will help address some of these issues. She even envisions niche software that could support reading styles specific to certain disciplines. “You can imagine that a historian going through illuminated texts is going to have very different navigation needs than someone who is comparing algorithms,” she points out.
It’s likely that desktop computers, laptops, tablet computers and paper will play a role in academic reading’s future. But the authors say e-readers will also find their place. Thayer imagines the situation will be similar to today’s music industry, where MP3s, CDs and LPs all coexist in music-lovers’ listening habits.
“E-readers are not where they need to be in order to support academic reading,” Lee concludes, but adds that e-readers may reach that point "sooner than we think.”
Jul 4, 2011
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This is pure and simple junk science. This isn't proven, it's only the result of a very limited test group which may not be diverse enough to accurately reflect the idea of e-books in classes. Sure, there is SOME e-book stumbling blocks that DO exist and the main one is DRM. DRM prevents textbooks from being migrated to devices which may be able to render the content properly. This may lock you to reading your book ONLY on your computer or a small device which is just not suited well for large format texts thus ruining the experience. Perhaps an iPad or a similar tablet works better, but if they give you a DRM infested file, your options become severely limited unless you can circumvent the DRM or obtain a non-encrypted version for use on other devices. E-textbook options would become more diverse if these publishers would make sure to make the digital edition accessible on all platforms and copy concerns can be addressed by methods such as watermarking or digital fingerprinting, which do NOT intrude upon the FAIR USE of such media and help to identify the source of a leak. (Meaning that if your file is found publicly posted online, you can be assessed a fair fine or judgement against you)
Thinking back to my college and grad school days, I can see the value in e-readers for _some_ of the work. Mathematics and Engineering, for example, would probably suffer with today's technology, but History, Languages and other text-based disciplines would benefit. I'm interested to see where the UW team and the manufacturers take the e-reader in the future. Currently, I do much of my reading on my iPhone, but will never give up my hard copy novels. The iPhone is just more convenient for travel/quick reading on the go...
I have an iPad, the only thing I can't highlight and add notes to are PDF files and I bet there is an app for that. This is the reason I went with the iPad, it gives an electronic experience most similar to a real textbook.
I have a Nook (first generation), and my biggest gripe with e-reading my textbooks was that diagrams and photos did not lay out correctly, if at all. Tables would read as a column of apparently unrelated words. I switched to the iPad (also first gen) and found that some reading apps DO allow for highlighting, adding notes, and so on, and they also allow the e-books to appear as normal pages. The pages can also be increased in size to make for easier reading (as I am a middle-aged grad student and small print no longer applies). I personally hope to see a time when e-books are the norm rather than the exception. I think of the possibilities: in some remote place with limited resources, e-readers could offer students the world at their fingertips for a tiny fraction of the price of a hard-copy library, with no restrictions.