After several years of looking at e-readers with curiosity and some envy, I finally ordered a Kindle from Amazon.
Since I only wanted the device for reading books and avoiding printing research material, I decided to get the basic model of e-reader. I enjoy the simple interface, the size, and the design of the device, along with how easy it is to read and manage books and magazine subscriptions. I also found it easy to borrow e-books from the library.
But studying using an e-reader is a completely different game. It’s one thing to read a book continuously, browse a magazine, or read a newspaper article. It’s another to use an e-reader as a textbook replacement for serious research. That’s why, despite the hope that they could be used in education to save money by replacing text books, e-readers probably aren’t ready for schools.
According to the first findings of an ongoing study by the University of Washington, using the Kindle DX model (the large version that is optimized to view PDFs and academic texts), e-readers are not suitable for education (yet) to be used as book replacements for research and annotation.
“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.”
The problem is even bigger with smaller e-readers. The Kindle DX features a 9.7” display, making it the closest to a full letter page, while most e-readers feature a 6” display. I tried reading a full letter page in PDF format on my Kindle, and I found it completely annoying. E-readers are only suitable for text and publications adapted to them.
Another problem is the need for additional devices to take notes and conduct online research. While most tablets and large e-readers feature an integrated browser, students are not used to switching back and forth between the text and browser to look up definitions or check additional sources of information. The UW study found that most students kept a sheet of paper with the e-reader so that they could take notes. Also, while using the Kindle, they used a computer so they could look up references or do other tasks.
Another issue is text and image skimming. It is very difficult to switch between reading techniques when using an e-reader. Most students browse pictures, charts, and diagrams before they read the text in an article, and e-readers are not suitable (yet) for that way of reading.
Tablets such as the iPad overcome some of the issues, but then there is the digital distraction. According to this New York Times article, “A tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.”
“E-readers are not where they need to be in order to support academic reading,” Lee concludes. But asked when e-readers will reach that point, she predicts: “It’s going to be sooner than we think.”