The front of the Amazon Kindle DX
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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.

As coverage in Fast Company notes:

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.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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11 Thoughts on "Digital Texts in Education — E-Readers Still Have Limitations, But the Path Forward Is Clearer"

Amazon is apparently building a tablet device according to this:

If true, this indicates where they see the Kindle/Android platform going for them (remember Amazon has built an Android App shop

One could look at these numbers and say “Even with known flaws, nearly 40% of students used a kindle to do their schoolwork”. I think Amazon was pretty involved in this pilot project – So they’ve got a wealth of actionable business intelligence to help them in their plans to build out on the Kindle/Android platforms.

  • David Smith
  • May 5, 2011, 7:17 AM

It sounds like we need some simple time & motion studies on the cognitive aspects of how people study, especially (1) note taking and (2) text jumping (both within and between texts). How and why do they do it?

In many cases learning is actually doing research, but where someone else already knows the answer. Research can be very complicated, so I expect that note taking and text jumping are too.

These users are not just reading, as one might read a book or article from beginning to end. What they are doing is far more complex and dynamic and the tool has to fit the job. They are path finding and system building, because knowledge is a system, not just a collection.

  • David Wojick
  • May 5, 2011, 7:36 AM

The Kindle is a superb device for text, but most modern textbooks (particularly for science) require illustrations and color figures, a major failing for the black and white e-ink device.

It’s unclear if the rumored Amazon tablet is a full-blown iPad-like device (what would that say about Steve Jobs’ attitude toward stand-alone eReaders?) or more a Nook-like color device, which would address the figure problem above.

More on the rumors here:

  • David Crotty
  • May 5, 2011, 10:13 AM

Do grad students use textbooks? As I recall I read mostly journal articles and advanced treatises.

  • David Wojick
  • May 6, 2011, 6:34 AM

It really depends on the topic of study and the course itself. Medical students certainly still use textbooks, and science graduate students are often required to take general courses in things like Biochemistry where textbooks are used. But the more advanced courses are indeed taught from the research literature.

  • David Crotty
  • May 6, 2011, 9:44 AM

The iPad offers color and dynamic visualization features that the Kindle lacks. But what the iPad lacks is a keypad and word-processing system that makes note-taking really easy. Some company has just released an iPad that converts to a laptop by attaching a regular keyboard and has a standard word-processing system. This is the kind of integrated device that is needed to make e-textbooks a strong growth opportunity.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • May 5, 2011, 5:34 PM

There are loads of iPad cases out there with keyboards built in. The iPad also works quite nicely with any bluetooth keyboard as an alternative.

  • David Crotty
  • May 5, 2011, 6:19 PM

I know you folks are in love with technology, but you may be missing the point of the study. Student needs are specialized and complex. Isn’t there some rule about meeting user needs? First you have to understand them.

More generally, the whole science education world seems to have become oblivious to student cognitive needs. It is all about putting demands on the students, starting with annual yearly progress. Every class is required to do better than the class before it. It’s insane.

  • David Wojick
  • May 6, 2011, 6:57 AM

You’re right on, David! It’s not really a matter of, say, using an iPad vs. a Kindle DX for academic work. It’s really more about understanding students’ broader workflows and reasons for reading in the first place, and the decisions they make regarding reading. Different reading technologies (paper, laptops, desktops, slate computers, e-readers, mobile devices, etc.) all support different aspects of reading practice in different ways. There is no single perfect technology….

One final note: Our paper isn’t public yet because the conference hasn’t happened yet, but once the paper is available through the ACM digital library it should clear up some of the confusion I’ve seen in blog responses to the press release. *)

  • Alex Thayer
  • May 7, 2011, 12:28 AM

I don’t think you need time-and-motion studies to get that the Kindle as it is now is not going to meet the needs of all courses. I did my undergraduate degree in literature, and I am pretty sure I would have been convinced that I’d died and gone to heaven if I had been able to have all my readings on a full-text-searchable device. Just thinking about it makes me a little sad. I’d have stuck with the paper book for org chem – for anything that needed a lot of diagrams, sure – but for book books? The Kindle does well what it’s designed for.

  • Caitlin Burke
  • May 6, 2011, 10:43 AM

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