A long-term study of students using the Kindle DX at the University of Washington has found that e-textbooks lack key features vital to education and learning. Or at least that’s what “science via press release” says. The study itself will be reported by Alex Thayer, a doctoral student in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, next week in Vancouver, B.C. at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, where the study received an honorable mention for best paper.
Despite not being able to locate the full paper, the press release put out by the University of Washington seems to distill the findings in an addressable manner.
Thayer and his co-author, Charlotte Lee, interviewed 39 first-year graduate students in the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering who were participating in a Kindle DX pilot. Thirty-two of the subjects were men and seven were women, all ages 21 to 53 years old.
After seven months, fewer than 40% of the students did their schoolwork on the Kindle. Limitations included difficulty taking notes, skimming, and looking up references. Some of the students interviewed kept sheets of paper with their Kindle case to take notes, and other read near computers so that they could easily look up references.
Put in more academic terms:
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.
The results aren’t surprising, and align with results from similar pilot studies elsewhere.
However, part of the authors’ interpretation hints at future solutions — namely, that computers are useful academic tools, more useful than books. And since most of the reading on the Kindle DX was a replacement for print book reading, not computer usage, it seems e-books might tackle the academic market by becoming more computer-like — with better connectivity, multi-tasking support, and keyboard integration. As co-author Lee is quoted as saying:
E-readers are not where they need to be in order to support academic reading. It’s going to be sooner than we think.
Inkling, a publisher-backed iPad startup, has already started doing this with interactive textbooks that include glossaries, note-taking and sharing capabilities, video, and more. But Inkling is still fairly small (it has a mere 55 available titles), and the Kindle DX’s capabilities are limited.
While it may be months or years before some combination of technologies and user accommodation cracks open the textbook market for e-readers, it’s clear that customers want it to happen, and that the solution going forward is not a return to print, but a more functional e-reader.
(Update: Thanks to David Smith’s comment, here is news that Amazon is ordering thousands of tablet computers, apparently as part of an Android tablet rollout sometime in the near future. Combined with their retail prowess, Kindle technologies, and lessons learned from pilots like the one described here, this could be something very important to watch.)