Monday, March 08, 2010

Princeton University e-reader pilot

An e-reader pilot at Princeton University, using Amazon Kindle DX ebook readers, found them as readable as printed material, but a major problem was the difficulty of annotating ebooks. There is a 7 page (127 Kbytes PDF) executive summary as well as a full report available. Ironically, these reports are provided in PDF, the format the report finds the students had most difficulty annotating.

In my view a low cost netbook computer would overcome most of the limitations reported with the Kindle for educational purposes at a lower overall cost. This would have a superior keyboard, allowing notes to be taken and add-on software could be used to add notes to PDF documents. Netbooks provide a colour screen, more useful for annotations. Most students could use the netbook as their primary computer, with a low cost external screen, keyboard and mouse at home. The ebook has advantages of light weight, long battery life and daylight readable screen, but require students to have a second computer for their studies, adding cost and complexity.
In the Fall of 2009, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at Princeton conducted a pilot program using electronic readers (e-readers) in a classroom setting. The pilot was conducted with three broad goals. One was to reduce the amount of printing and photocopying done in the three pilot courses. The second was to determine if using this technology in the classroom could equal (or better) the typical classroom experience where more traditional readings were used. The third sought to explore the strengths and weaknesses of current e-reader technology to provide suggestions for future devices.
E-reader technology offered the promise of delivering a large number of digitized documents on a lightweight device with a long battery life, and a display that mimicked the reflective qualities of actual paper. The consumer market in e-readers had already proved it was possible to read on these devices; we sought to see if they could be useful in higher education by conducting a pilot using e-readers in several courses.

Three courses were selected for the pilot, involving 3 faculty members, and 51 students. The e-reader used in the pilot was the Amazon Kindle DX.

The goal of printing less in the pilot courses was achieved: pilot participants printed just over half the amount of sheets than control groups who did not use e-readers. The classroom experience was somewhat worsened by using e-readers, as study and reference habits of a lifetime were challenged by device limitations. This pilot suggests that future e-book manufacturers may wish to pay more attention to annotation tools, pagination, content organization, and in achieving a more natural “paper-like” user experience. In summary, although most users of the Kindle DX were very pleased with their “reading” experiences with the Kindle, they felt that the “writing” tools fell short of expectations, and prevented them from doing things easily accomplished with paper. ...

The areas in which they felt the Kindle could be best improved were:
  • The ability to highlight and annotate PDF files
  • Improving the annotation tools
  • Providing a folder structure to keep similar readings together
  • Improving the highlighting function
  • Improving the navigation within and between Kindle documents
Because it was difficult to take notes on the Kindle, because PDF documents could not be annotated or highlighted at all, and because it was hard to look at more than one document at once, the Kindle was occasionally a tool that was counter-productive to scholarship. ...

What features do ereaders need to be effective tools for higher education?
... One thing that emerged clearly from the surveys was that superb annotation tools are critical for the success of an e-reader used in higher education. ... There were also functional concerns, such as the ability to compare documents, or have more than one reading open at a time, and some ability to “skim” or “flip” rapidly through a reading to see highlights and notes. ...

There was a strong positive attachment to some present feature of the Kindle DX, most particularly the reflective screen, which allowed for long periods of reading, the size, the form factor, and the battery life. When told that any additional features (such as a color or LCD screen) would impact battery life, most students said they preferred to stick with grayscale and e-paper technology – with one exception: highlighting, where more contrast to the page, and a variety of possible marking styles would help create the same effectiveness as color highlighters on a black and white paper page. ...

From: The E-reader pilot at Princeton, Fall semester, 2009, Final report, (executive summary), Janet Temos, Princeton University, February 2010

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