E-Books: Permeating and Complementing

Beyond Distance first began to research the use of e-book readers in higher education back in 2008 at the beginning of the DUCKLING project. From our research, distance students overwhelmingly reported that accessing course materials on the e-reader was a very flexible, convenient study method which helped them target the most relevant readings, well suiting their busy, on-the-go lifestyles. Yet, especially in the earlier stages of the project, I wondered about the long-term viability of e-books and e-book readers. E-book reader prices were not terribly far off from the price of netbooks, and publishers did not seem to be in a rush to make books available as e-books.

Photo courtesy of ceslava on Flickr

Today, especially since the UK launch of the iPad in May and Amazon dropping the price of the Kindle in June, the scene looks very different. But it isn’t just the low price of the Kindle or the cool tech of the iPad. It’s the fact that huge players like Apple and Amazon are managing to persuade publishers to make books, even textbooks, available as e-books. It’s also the fact that Amazon wisely made its Kindle App (the programme which nicely displays the e-book) freely available for iPad, iPhone, Android, and both Mac and Windows computers (and it seems to be do-able in Linux as well).

So now, students can take their reading list, check titles on a growing list of online e-book vendor websites including those of W H Smith and Waterstones, and download the e-book right now and likely for a lower price than the paper version. If they are lucky enough to have a reading list filled with the old classics such as Plato’s Republic or Huckleberry Finn, the e-books are free. Some good sites for free e-books are Project Gutenberg, Manybooks.net, and feedbooks.com, and most of the e-book sales sites also feature free e-books.

E-books won’t be pushing paper books out of the picture anytime soon. However, with their mobility, convenience, instantaneous delivery, and (usually) lower prices, they have managed to permeate the marketplace and complement the use of traditional books. They are here to stay, and their presence and use will only grow.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

Can Learning Innovations be Embedded and Sustained?

On 28 April, 2010, Gabi Witthaus and Terese Bird attended a CAMEL meeting sponsored by JISC and which took place at Middlesex University, the theme of which was to examine whether the developments of the DUCKLING project can be embedded and sustained. Once the project is over, can teaching teams continue to use the technologies, findings and deliverables?

In this meeting, Gabi and Terese looked at the sustainability of each of the three technologies implented in the DUCKLING project — ebook readers, podcasting, and Second Life — as well as the pedagogy underpinning the use of each. Since the project is a joint effort amongst the Schools of Psychology and Education, and Beyond Distance, it was helpful to consider how each of the Schools implemented each innovation.

Psychology used Second Life as a forum for role-playing and simulation, to give students a taste of the experience of living and working on an oil rig with its dangers and isolation, as preparation for their assignment to write a health and safety training manual for oil rig workers. Beyond Distance techies supported this work. However, the actual role playing and leading of the sessions was done by Psychology academics and could continue that way, with some tech support. To watch a YouTube video capturing some of the action of the students’ experience on the oil rig, click here.

Education sent their students into existing language class forums in Second Life, where students observed and could participate in the classes. This was a very flexible way of making use of Second Life — students simply went in and signed up for classes already taking place pretty much 24/7. Observing language classes in Second Life has now been embedded into themodule as an optional activity. As long as there are such forums in Second Life, this activity is sustainable.

Podcasts have been fully embedded into the Psychology curriculum for the masters programme in DUCKLING — especially as part of the dissertation-writing process. These podcasts been rolled out to all cohorts on that module. Psychology academics have been making and distributing (via the University VLE, Blackboard) podcasts without any help from Beyond Distance for months now. Education has especially recently begun to record podcasts for its Masters TESOL students, and again the work of recording and posting onto the VLE is straightforward enough to continue without difficulty after DUCKLING’s conclusion.

With the ebook readers, we learned from interviews with students that using the ebook reader is changing their study habits. To quote one student: “I now study more in my workdays using the e-reader. I’ve been putting it in my bag every day and taking it to work and after lunch reading a few pages. I’ve found that way it keeps the content fresh in my mind. Before with the paper version, I’d allocate my weekends for study.”  Another student commented, “I think that the e-book reader changed my way of keeping notes and makes my study more effective. Before, I used my laptop to write a lot of notes because I felt that I would forget the whole thing if I didn’t take them down. But taking notes is time-consuming and not that effective because I never really use the notes. With the e-book reader, it’s not very inconvenient to go back to the material on the e-reader and I can remember where the material was and go back to the module on the e-reader and look through it. As a result of that, I didn’t take a lot of notes and I don’t think it (not taking notes) makes a difference to my study.”

A further aspect of the continuing use of ebook readers can be viewed from the point of view of finance. One department saw savings over printing and shipping stacks of handouts to students, by instead shipping to the students fully-loaded ebook readers. In some cases the students themselves experienced the savings, realising that they did not have to purchase hard copies of notes and choosing instead to simply read these on their ebook readers. Converting module handouts from Word format into format suitable for ebook readers (epub format in the case of the Sony ebook readers we are using) is not a very difficult process — click here for our instructions to do this. The fact that the iPad supports epub documents, public libraries are beginning to offer ebooks for download in epub format, and students are looking for reading material compatible with smartphones, presses the point that the use of this technology will only increase in future. We predict it will be sustained by popular demand.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

eBooks and eReaders: Advancing at Warp Speed

The DUCKLING project, a collaborative effort between University of Leicester’s Beyond Distance, the School of Psychology and the School of Education has been examining the impact on distance students’ learning of three technologies: podcasts, ebook readers, and the use of Second Life. Back in autumn 2009, we loaded learning materials onto ebook readers and shipped them out to distance students around the world, in lieu of the stacks of printed material shipped in years past and at greater cost. (For  a simple guide to change Word documents to epub documents suitable for most ebook readers, click here to download from the DUCKLING website.) As one of the learning technologists working on the project, I provided subsequent support to the students, mostly by answering their questions on a Blackboard discussion board.

In March of 2010, we shipped ebook readers to a new cohort of distance students, and I have again been providing technical support by discussion on Blackboard. I observed an interesting development in the kinds of questions being asked.

The September 2009 cohort asked questions about the different software required by the ereader (Sony Reader Library, Calibre) and what platforms these run on,  whether PDF documents display on ereaders (answer: they do, but line breaks are rigid so the document does not “flow”). Students also commented that they appreciated carrying all reading material in one package especially while travelling, and the fact that their ereader was a conversation-starter on their morning commute. Some students commented that they wished their ereader had facilities for note-taking (the Sony PRS-505 used in this project does not have this facility).

The March 2010 cohort asked fewer tech-help questions. They had many more technical comments, having already gotten to grips with many of the usability issues. Comments such as “I wish I could organise the documents according to my own design” were quickly answered by other students who had already figured it out. They downloaded their own material onto ereaders and discussed how that worked. Most interestingly to me, they compared reading documents on the ereader not with reading on paper, but with reading on other devices – laptop, iPod Touch, iPhone.  I found myself scrambling to keep up with the suggestions for software to try, sites to visit, apps to purchase. One student looked forward to the ease with which ereaders could make educational material available to students: “…education is the perfect market for ebooks I think. The amount of reading is so wide-ranging, and personally there is a desire to read tonnes of material. The access we have through Leicester for journals is immense; having the same access to the reading lists would just be good for education full stop. It will change, when is the only question.”

In January 2010 the Consumer Electronics Association predicted ereader sales will double in 2010, as Amazon announced the Kindle was “the most gifted item ever from its website” according to Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service. The Apple iPad has every possibility of being a game-changer in this field. Our students’ comments illustrate the speed at which the ebooks and ereaders market is advancing. For students looking for a convenient and cost-effective way of accessing academic material, the change cannot happen too soon.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

Mobile Learning, Handheld Learning

Whilst on the train returning from ALT-C 2009, I read John Traxler’s excellent thought piece “Students and mobile devices: choosing which dream”. John describes the conundrum of using mobile devices such as mp3 players and mobile phones for learning: so many students have them that it seems obvious that we should include them as learning technology. However, not all students have them, and students don’t all have devices with the same capability, and students may not wish to use their own mobile devices as learning tools. To quote, “Student devices unlock the dreams of agency, control, ownership and choice amongst students but put the dreams of equity, access and participation at risk. Universities cannot afford, procure, provide nor control these devices but they cannot ignore them either. Clearly such a stark choice is an over-simplification; there is no simple question and no simple answer.”

I am not so sure I agree, however, that universities cannot afford or procure these devices. Fifteen or so years ago we were discussing whether universities could afford the numbers of computers needed for students to be assured computer access. Today many universities offer students the free use of laptops, cameras and digital camcorders in addition to fixed desktop computers.

Today I discovered the website for the Handheld Learning Conference. Apple appears to be taking the lead on the conference this year, which seems only to be expected given the iPhone and iPod derivatives (as well as the rumoured iTablet). The development first of iStanford (by which Stanford students can check grades, registration, and the whereabouts of the campus shuttle bus on their iPhones), and now of MobilEdu with Blackboard elevate the handheld device to the status of a VLE. At the same time, Sony has just released its updated models of e-book reader, and new eReaders from IREX and CoolReaders will surely appeal to students looking for a way to consolidate required readings into one digital package.

The Burnt Oak Junior School in Kent recently gave out iPod Touches to 32 8-year-old students for general school use. A short film describing the project can be seen here. Whilst watching it, I was reminded that it was only a few short years ago we were first hearing about schools buying fleets of laptops for uses not unlike this school’s use of the iPod Touch — but the iPod costs a fraction of the price of a laptop. Schools and universities are indeed investing in handheld-learning hardware as well as software. Students will begin to consider an iPhone or whatever handheld of choice to be as much a required purchase as a rucksack.

Terese Bird

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