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

Sony e-books going wireless

It’s the end of my first two weeks here at the University of Leicester as the new Learning Technologist on the OTTER and DUCKLING projects (I’m either a DOTTER or an OTTLING, whichever takes your fancy). It’s been a busy two weeks with plenty of information to take in but combined with lots of friendly faces and a nice, relaxed working atmosphere to help settle the first day nerves.

While I’ve been having plenty of meetings and discussions about both projects I’ve mainly been working on DUCKLING, specifically the creation of e-books for the Sony Reader.

I’ve written in more detail about the process that I’ve used for this on the DUCKLING blog. Before being appointed to this post I had limited dealings with e-readers; I’d used e-books but had read these on my computer and not found them a replacement for other online information such as tutorials.

So I came to the Sony Reader fresh and without any previous opinions on the hardware, or indeed really on the e-book software.

Getting the opportunity to get my hands on any new technology and play with it is always good. So being able to use the Sony Reader 505 and read through and add books to it was a novel experience (pun intended I’m afraid!). I’m always looking to improve my skills and am looking to focus on my web development skills in the future.

The ability to access books or tutorials converted to e-book formats would be incredibly useful while sitting at the computer using things like Dreamweaver as I can refer to the screen and at the same time refer to multiple e-books rather than having to either switch between screens or switch between books.

I can see how something like this would be an advantage also to someone writing a dissertation or a thesis as they can, in essence, have a mini-library at their finger tips. Although being someone who enjoys reading in the bath, I’m not a 100% sure how effective e-readers would be at this and I haven’t come across any waterproof ones, yet.

Reading the Metro on the train into work this morning I came across an article about Sony Readers. Sony is just about to launch their first wireless electronic reader which also includes a touch screen and the ability to store up to 1,000 novels. In the article, Steve Haber, a Sony president, said the e-book market was expanding rapidly, ‘Momentum is building tremendously. It’s just a matter of time.’

With 400,000 of the previous non-wireless e-readers sold since January the market does appear to be growing, the article also mentions the Amazon Kindle which is also popular but with the company not providing figures it is hard to say the exact level of growth and also to see the sales war.

I was interested to see this article for a number of reasons, partly to see something that is in an emerging market being talked about relatively prominently in a free paper. Also Seeing the evolution of e-readers and how this will impact on education, both with the learners and providers.

Finally thinking about whether these developments change the purpose of e-readers. The reason I say this is because e-readers are to an extent self-explanatory: their purpose is for reading. To me the idea of wireless connection and a touch screen move slightly away from just reading, whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your own purpose for using an e-reader and how the product targets and addresses that purpose.

Coming from a web design and development background I’m also interested to see how things such as CSS, JavaScript and even Flash could be utilised by this kind of technology. CSS can already be used in the process of converting files to an e-book format, so it will be intriguing to see how far styles can be applied and again whether they change or affect the purpose of an e-reader.

With mobile technology, specifically mobile phones, design-heavy websites have been replaced with content-lead websites, but applications for these phones combine content with design and with e-books being able to be read on an iPhone and iTouch (see http://www.teleread.org/2009/06/03/two-weeks-with-a-sony-prs-700-reading-epub-and-lrf/ for a more detailed overview), it will be interesting to see whether the e-reader gets seduced into branching out into related but different areas and how successful this will be.

Personally I would like to see the e-reader branch out, as depending on what I’m doing I will be doing other things while reading: if I’m reading for pleasure I tend to listen to music at the same time; and if I’m reading for study then I’ll tend to be on the computer.

So to further move to these things would attract me to an e-reader. It also makes me wish I could predict the development and then try and tap into it, as I feel that there is an emerging market of e-reader support, development and add-ons waiting to break through.

Emma Davies

Learning Technologist

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