Wednesday, 9 May 2012

eBook readers and academic reading

Research on the use of eBooks in higher education suggests that reading devices such as Kindles and iPads aren't going to transform university study in the way some have hoped.

A literature review by Simon Cross in the OU's Institute of Educational Technology covers twelve recent publications and finds a remarkably consistent picture emerging of the advantages and disadvantages of eBooks. The three main advantages reported are those one would expect, and apply whether eBooks are read online with a conventional computer or on a portable reading device: ease of access (by comparison with a physical library), low or zero cost (by comparison with expensive print textbooks), and the searchability of texts. In addition, where students were issued with reading devices for the purposes of the trial, staff found advantage in being able to assume a common hardware and software platform. The only surprise here is that portability, when accessed through a mobile device, did not seem to figure strongly as an advantage.

The disadvantages, however, reveal an important distinction between leisure and academic use. While respondents were very happy with eBook readers for reading novels or magazines, they experienced significant difficulties in using them for the kind of high-level reading required for university work. As I have already observed, academic reading falls into the category which Jakob Nielsen has called "high-value use", for which mobile devices are less well suited than desktop or laptop machines because of their smaller screen size and inferior keyboard interfaces. With the help of the IET literature review,  it's possible to go further and identify some of the distinctive requirements of academic reading.

1  Non-linear navigation.  When reading for academic purposes, you need to do more than simply move forwards through the document. You may need to skip back to earlier parts to remind yourself of what was said previously or skip ahead to see where the text is leading, and then return to where you were. You may need to flick back and forth repeatedly between two or more parts of the text to compare and relate them. You may need to skim read the text to get a sense of its overall structure. All these things are possible on an eBook reader, but they're not simple, because the devices are optimised to show a single page at a time and to navigate linearly forwards and backwards.
2  Note-taking. Academic reading is active reading, to understand and assimilate and interpret, and that usually involves taking notes. Highlighting text and adding annotations, which are supported (if awkwardly) by many eBook readers, are helpful, but only provide part of what is needed. Deep reading involves incorporating the text into your own understanding, which means making your own synthesis: the notes  need to be part of your own text, not the text of the document you're reading. Mobile devices, because of the limitations of their interfaces, tend not to support such synthesis very well; it was said of the iPad on its launch that it was a consumption device rather than a creation device, and (notwithstanding the iPad paintings of David Hockney) that largely remains true. A more fundamental limitation with mobile devices is that they are designed to do only one thing at a time, so that task switching is poor, whereas for note-taking you need to be doing at least two things simultaneously: reading and writing. The difficulties are such that one lecturer concluded that eBook readers were encouraging passive reading in his students.

What seems to be emerging is a pattern of mixed use: combining screen reading for discovery and searching with print reading for note-taking and deep study; using a mobile device for reading and another device for note-taking; or using an eBook reader as a secondary device for when portability is important. eBook readers may have made on-screen reading more comfortable and convenient, through their high resolution imaging and re-sizeable text as well as their physical lightness; but they are unlikely to transform academic use unless and until they can better support these high value functions. Split screen operation would be a start.

Postscript. Since writing the above, I've seen this interesting post by Alex Golub, an American academic and iPad enthusiast, who makes very similar points about the limitations of an iPad, by comparison with a laptop, for academic work.

References The IET literature review is available only to Open University staff through, but the reports surveyed include the following:
  • Darden School of Business (2010) Darden Shares Results of Kindle Experiment,
    University of Virginia News and Media. 5 November 2010. Available at:
  • Marmarelli, T. and Ringle, M. (2010) The Reed College Kindle Study. 26 February
    2010. Available at
  • Li, C., Poe, F., Potter, M, Quigley, B. and Wilson, J. (2011) UC Libraries Academic e-
    Book Usage Survey: Springer e-Book Pilot Project, University of California Libraries.
  • Foasberg, N. (2011) Adoption of E-Book Readers among College Students: A
    Survey, Information Technology and Libraries, September 2011, 108-128

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