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E-books may inhibit student comprehension: studies

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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.”

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure