Monday, May 9, 2011

Limitations of some E-Readers

We see them everywhere -- Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other e-readers that hold digital versions of the books we read. But a recent study from The University of Washington  suggests that at least some of these devices (or the current iterations thereof) may be more suited to leisure reading than to the kinds of reading that students do with their textbooks.

The study notes that graduate students provided with a Kindle Dx (a larger version of the e-reader sold by Amazon) found that students often needed either a personal computer or a sheet of paper to supplement the reading they did on the e-reader. The computer allowed them to look up references they encountered or to take notes with a word processing program. The study noted that when the students read traditional format books, approximately 75% of them made markings -- margin notes, underlinings, and highlighting passages -  while reading. This was not feasible in the same way with the Kindle. Some students even tucked sheets of paper into the carrying case for their e-readers to facilitate taking handwritten notes.

The study also found that traditional textbooks allowed students to switch back-and-forth between reading techniques, such as skimming a chapter or reviewing the references at the end of a chapter or article before going back and reading the full text. The Kindle e-reader did not have the same capacity for this kind of switching, and students were less likely to use the e-reader as a result. We often recommend that a student approach reading a textbook by using previewing techniques -- looking through a chapter to note the questions at the end, the highlighted passages, and italicized words -- to help get a sense of what the authors believe to be the most important information. This allows students to then turn to the beginning of the chapter and read it in its entirety with some sense of familiarity with the vocabulary and knowledge of the key points that the chapter is making. This can be useful for all students, especially for those who tend not to process what they are reading with sufficient depth to gain true understanding. This kind of reading can be more difficult to do with e-readers.

Of particular note, the researchers conducting the study noted that using the Kindle made it more difficult for some students to recall what they read. Because of the way text is laid out in some e-readers, students have more difficulty employing a technique called "cognitive mapping" to recall where certain information appeared on a page or in a chapter, which can be helpful in actually remembering the information itself.

One can hope that the limitations of the Kindle and similarly-designed e-readers will help guide their manufacturers as they develop new models and software applications, as well as related forms of technology, to make reading both more accessible and more effective for students. Already, in the iPad, Android tablets, and new iterations of the Kindle and its ilk, many of which are essentially tiny personal computers as well as e-readers, we have seen improvements which seek to replicate these functions - such as using annotation apps like iAnnotate or Neu Annotate to highlight and make notes, or using built-in or online access to dictionaries and encyclopedias to help increase depth of comprehension and recall. Many electronic reading platforms now mimic pagination and layout in a fashion that is more typical of printed books.

In the meantime, although we are big believers in the ways that technology can help students, it might be a bit premature to go all digital, all the time, for all kinds of students. We recommend taking a measured approach, and carefully evaluating all new technology options on a student-by-student basis.

Photo used under Creative Commons from texqas.

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