E-book readers and the life style of distance learners

I recently interviewed a student who is studying a distance learning MA course in Applied Linguistics and TESOL offered by the University of Leicester. This student works in a private language school in Vancouver as an English teacher.

Interestingly, he told me that he owned a SONY PRS-505 e-book reader since the product came out into the market 18 months ago. He has already downloaded all the course materials and some recommended journal articles from Blackboard onto his e-book reader, and reads them quite often.

He found issues to do with formatting, for example, sometimes there is one word displayed on one page. This is expected as we haven’t edited any of the course documents on Blackboard into appropriate format for the e-book reader.

Nevertheless, he finds his e-book reader extremely useful, particularly with regard to his life style. He travels a lot. The e-book reader allows him to keep up with the learning without carrying the readings with him. He’s also very actively involved in out-door activities, such as camping. The e-book reader allows him to read in places where there is no electricity. Fortunately the battery of an e-book reader lasts a lot longer than that of a laptop.

I’ve talked to several distance learning students by now. They seem to share a similar life style – having a demanding life, trying to balance work, study and family, struggling to find a suitable time or place to read, multi-tasking, last-minute work, etc.

One of the students that I talked to is self-employed. He works as a consultant and a large part of his job is to visit clients. During the day, he always carries lots of readings with him, and if he finds a gap between two meetings, he finds a café or hotel, has a cup of coffee and reads.

Another student travels regularly between France and England. She always carries a big file folder containing all the course materials with her. The file folder adds a lot of weight to her luggage, and she feels that she’s disturbing the passenger sitting next to her on the plane every time she opens that big folder. An e-book reader could ease all these problems. It’s a device that fits in nicely with the life style of our distance learners.

Having said those wonderful things, the student found a drawback with his SONY 505 – it will not allow him to annotate. Interestingly, having experimented with e-book readers for several months among ourselves, some colleagues of mine have also found this to be the problem. They found the e-book reader quite limited without the ability to annotate.

Another colleague of mine mentioned the other day how wonderful her iLiad e-book reader is, by allowing her to highlight, take notes, and annotate while she’s flying on a plane, and allowing her to merge the annotation with the original document and display them together on a computer screen later on.

The higher model SONY e-book readers (PRS-700) offer functions such as touch screen and annotation. However, it comes at a price. The SONY 505 costs about £180-190, whereas the SONY 700 costs about £350-400, much more expensive. It seems there is a decision to be made on whether to comprise on function because of the price.

Ming Nie              4 June 2009

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