DUCKLING’s e-book readers

E-book readers have been tested recently by work-based Masters’ students in Education (TESOL), studying at a distance, at the University of Leicester. The trial was part of DUCKLING, one of BDRA’s projects, funded by JISC.

Last week I read a draft case study by Ming Nie on these students’ reactions to using the Sony PRS-505 e-book readers (not the latest model). She says that the readers, preloaded with module materials, a textbook and podcasts were given to 17 Education students. The devices, they said, increased the flexibility and mobility of their learning, helped them to save resources and costs on printing, enabled them to do more reading of course materials during the working day and helped them to conduct their studies more effectively .

There’s been a lot of press interest in such readers. The Guardian (July 21) carried a front-page item about Amazon selling more e-books for the Kindle reader in the past three months in the US than it had hardbacks (though US hardback sales rose by 22%, in case you think the book is doomed already). Five authors had sold more than half a million digital copies each. In the UK, though, sales of e-books last year were  worth ‘only’ £150 million.

A recent survey for The Bookseller  of 3,000 British book-buying consumers showed that only 26% of respondents had heard of a Kindle and only 41% knew what a Sony Reader was, although 60% had heard of the iPad. They said they were “unlikely” (36.8%) or would “definitely not” (32.3%) buy an e-reader in the coming year. Of course, few of those surveyed may have been students at the time.

Brian Croxall  reflects on his experience of getting students to use Web 2.0 technology such as Google Docs, Twitter, Wave, Wikis and Zotero: it was mainly positive, he said, but beware of ‘tool fatigue’.  Students may be happy to use new technologies, but there’s a limit to their enthusiasm. Mine too!

Have you heard of Kno? I hadn’t. It’s an e-reader being developed for the HE market and due in the autumn. This twin-colour-screen wi-fi device will support Flash, HTML5, PDF and ePub formats.  See the video,  but what about its price and battery life?

The World eBook Fair claims to have 3.5 million e-books that can be read or downloaded. It’s free until 4 Aug, then $8.95 per year. Although I’d guess that a few thousand of these could be valuable in some way to UK university students, I do wonder whether e-book design is going to turn out to be different from that of the paper originals. I read this week that embedded video and audio in e-books will be with us soon. What a challenge — and what an opportunity for e-learning designers!

David Hawkridge

PS If you’re looking for a journal in which to publish your research paper, take a look at:


What has changed as a result of having an e-book reader?

One of the technologies that we incorporated into three Masters’ distance learning programmes in the DUCKLING project is the e-book readers. We are interested in finding out in what aspects students’ study habits changed as a result of having an e-book reader.

All the students on these Masters’ programmes are work-based learners. They are all in full-time employment. A baselining study conducted at the beginning of DUCKLING showed that most of the students lead busy and demanding lives. They travel a lot and struggle with squeezing in enough time for study.

Our findings showed that the e-book reader suits the life-style of our work-based distance learners. It has increased the flexibility and mobility of student learning, and enabled students to fill in the gaps and do more reading of course materials during the day.

Our findings showed that students highly valued the portability and flexibility that the e-book reader offers. They used their e-book readers in various ways. Some used their e-book reader at home or in the office. Many used it in public places (such as in a Café) and on the move (such as on a train, bus, plane).

The small and compact size and lightweight of the e-book reader make it suitable for carrying around and easy to use in public places and on the move. The readability of the e-book reader under different conditions makes it suitable for outdoor use. For students who do not enjoy reading from a computer screen, an e-book reader can be a good alternative. Accessing all course materials from one piece of device without the internet connection is an advantage perceived by many students. Long battery life, capacity to accommodate many books and user-friendly interface were also considered as advantages that make the e-book reader appealing to use outdoor or on the move.

Findings also indicated that the portability and functionalities of the e-book reader make it easier for students to take with them anywhere and read whenever they have a minute. We had many examples of students using their e-book readers during commutes, breaks and waiting times.

In students own words, the e-book reader has helped them to ‘squeeze in study’ whenever they have time. It has encouraged students to study ‘at times when they don’t feel particularly inclined to study’. It has ‘filled dead time’ and given students ‘the opportunity to fit in study during periods that may suddenly become available’. The Bookmark and Continue reading functions make the e-book reader extremely easy for students to “turn it off and restart where they left off”. This also increases the chance for students to use their e-book readers during their breaks or on the move. In summary, the e-book reader has helped to ‘optimize students’ time to the maximum’.

In my next blog, I will share more findings about what has changed as well as what hasn’t changed as a result of having an e-book reader.

Ming Nie

2 May 2010

Second Life, the Net Generation, E-book Readers and E-learning’s Market

Second Life

The BBC recently asked what has happened to Second Life, noting that media interest had ebbed away, and that that had affected some corporate investment because of a lack of publicity. Limitations on running SL on mobile devices were also not helping. They’re wrong, said Linden Labs, reporting a 23% increase in users over the last year, with 75,000 UK logins in October.

In its first virtual graduation ceremony the University of Edinburgh chose to use Second Life for certain students who couldn’t attend the traditional one. The degree: the Master’s in E-Learning.

Another ‘Second Life’ graduation took place at Bryant & Stratton College in the USA. You can view this graduation on YouTube here.

The Net Generation, Inhabitants and Visitors

I’ve mentioned before the research by Chris Jones and his team in the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology; they investigated the net generation at the OU and in other higher education institutions. You may be interested too in a blog posting by David White at Oxford University on inhabitants and visitors.

E-book Readers

E-book readers continue to improve, it seems. Amazon announced an increase of 85% in Kindle battery life, plus native support for PDF format. Next summer’s Kindle will have audible menus and much bigger fonts, according to this Slashgear article.

The New York Times asked two novelists to try Kindles.  Joseph Finder liked “the convenience of being able to lug a huge pile of books in one slim device”. He found the screen readable but bemoaned the typography and lack of a decent index.  Lee Child thought there were advantages to having a consistent font.

E-learning’s Market

At a time when economic hardship looms, a Sheffield company has produced a report on the UK e-learning market in 2009.  The report suggests that the annual size of the UK e-learning industry is currently between £300m and £450m, with growth forecast at between 6.7% and 8% per annum.

David Hawkridge

A tale of two sides?

I read Kelly’s recent post about a new e-reader joining the market place with interest.  I’ve been at Beyond Distance for over a month now and while getting to grips with the Sony E-reader I feel like I’ve been seeing, reading and hearing about e-readers everywhere, including seeing my first e-reader out and about being used by a man on the train.   Not that I’m complaining, to be able to figure out the details of how best to create an e-book and what works and what doesn’t and more importantly why not is something that could occupy me for hours.

To see another article in the Metro on the 16th September about e-readers made me realise that it wasn’t just me seeing e-readers everywhere it really is an emerging market and waiting to be embraced fully.  In my last post I mentioned a previous Metro article about Sony E-readers and while you might think I’m being commissioned by them to promote the Metro and E-readers I’m really not it’s just that a free paper to read on the train is hard to resist.

One of the points in the article that caught my attention was ‘Has publishing, a conservative industry learned its lesson from the music industry’s slowness in moving from selling CDs to selling online?’. The music industry is still adapting to selling online and issues of file sharing are likely to rage on for some time to come.  It seems that the publishing industry is trying to move forward but is also getting bogged down in some similar problems. You only have to look back at the article and within the first paragraph it mentions that ‘British licensing restrictions mean users here will only have access to 500,000 titles rather than the whole 2 million’.  Google as one of the driving forces in the online e-book shop market are still struggling with restrictions and are currently facing more legal action.

But with the technology already out there and being developed by the day the other side of the tale is that the demand for e-books is there and will carry on increasing and to refer back to the Metro article again if the price is right people will buy this technology and further increase its market.  According to the Guardian 52% of US print publishers are distributing content on mobile devices which again suggests that the demand is there, but will the demand overtake the ability to distribute books without any restrictions?  Obviously there are a great deal of e-books out there already that can be distributed but if a buyer of e-books has restricted choice due to licensing how long will it be before they want a solution? Creating your own e-books from online material is a possibility but with this process, at present, being one for the more technical people will it lead to a diminished uptake of what could arguably be the next big thing?

Emma Davies

Learning Technologist

A New E-Book Reader from Asus to Join the Market

I’ve been doing my best to stay updated with some of the developments related to e-book readers. The BDRA blog is certainly a useful resource for this and recent entries by Emma, Terese and Ming have all been very helpful in this respect.

An article in the Times Online (from the 6th September) recently caught my attention. It focused on a new e-book reader from a company called Asus which, apparently, should be available by Christmas this year. According to this article, the Asus ‘Eee reader’ claims to be ‘cleverer’ and ‘more versatile’ than existing readers on the market. So what is it about this e-book reader that makes it different?

There are several features of this product that make me believe it may change the e-book reader market. The first, is that the Eee reader will have two screens, with a hinged spine  to make it open out like a printed book. It will also have touch-screen capabilities, enabling readers to turn the pages by moving them from one screen to the next. The pages will be shown in colour and one side of the screen may be used to browse web pages, or could act as a ‘virtual keyboard.’

These features, plus further discussion around the possibility of webcams, speakers and microphones for Skype, meant that I began to think that Asus may be justified in thinking this product will ‘shake up’ the existing market of e-book readers. They are well qualified to do so, as Asus created the Eee PC which helped to start the current Netbook craze.

On top of these innovations, Asus is aiming to make it the cheapest digital reader on the market, making it even more accessible to the general public and meaning that the use of e-book readers as a whole will grow. Asus hope to produce two versions: a budget version and a premium version, with the budget version costing somewhere in the region of £100.

At the time of writing this blog, the final details of the device are yet to be confirmed. However, with the speed at which these things develop I would not be surprised if, by Christmas, there are more features added to the list above. I will certainly be watching with interest to see how this develops!

Dr Kelly Barklamb

Open-book exam? Don’t forget your e-Reader

e-Readers such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony PRS-505 are enjoying a surge of interest this summer. It is not too difficult to see the e-Reader as a handy item to pack in your holiday luggage. Imagine being able to bring along the entire works of Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare with room for dozens if not hundreds more, all in a thin, light, attractive gadget which furthermore increases the font to just the right size for your eyes with a single click. e-Readers flow the pages one after another, presenting them in the same way most people read novels.

But can e-Readers serve up textbooks in a way which is helpful and conducive to study? And what about the traditional handouts and notes – could these be usefully offered on e-Readers? Our DUCKLING project is addressing questions such as these.

Looking at handouts and notes alone, there is money-saving potential. Photocopying, collating, and shipping a box of notes to a distance learner for a single module often costs several hundreds of pounds. Shipping a £199 e-Reader (the current price of the PRS-505) loaded with the pertinent files should realise definite savings.

For on-campus students as well, the weight of paper versus the weight of an e-Reader is a factor. Imagine having all textbooks and notes in a single, light gadget, rather than lugging books and papers in a heavy backpack around campus all day. Being able to add one’s own annotations to notes and textbooks is a fairly-necessary feature which the Sony PRS-505 for example does not have, although Sony’s next model version (not yet available in the UK) does.

I recently sat an open-book final exam for an advanced statistics class. The instructor set the exam rules thus: “You may bring any inanimate object into the exam with you, except a laptop.” My instructor, albeit very forward-thinking, was still not ready to allow full access to the internet during an open-book exam. That particular issue may be a topic for another blog post. But my question was: what books and what notes shall I bring to an exam which I knew would be in-depth and complicated, and on a topic for which I did not feel great confidence? Printing out almost all of the notes and handouts from the VLE produced a stack of paper over a foot high. I could not imagine lugging that, plus 3 textbooks, into an exam where I would be sitting at one of those old wooden exam tables less than 2 feet wide.

My immediate thought would be to bring an appropriately-loaded e-Reader to my “open-e-book” exam. Would my instructor have been any more willing to let me do this, however, than to let me bring in my laptop? I suspect that a good search function alone might make the instructor uneasy enough to ban e-Readers as well, on the basis that the search function would be doing the work I should do for the exam. Instructor unease will only increase as e-Readers’ direct connection to the internet improves.

The real question, however, is whether textbook publishers will develop a healthy model of “e-textbooks.” So far, the tendency for some is to charge much more for an “e-textbook” than for a traditional text, on the basis that “students might just give away the e-book to their friends.” If they maintain that stance and e-Reader purchases grow at a rate anything like that of mp3 players, textbook publishers will find themselves in the same predicament as the music industry. It is in everyone’s interest that a healthy model of e-textbook pricing and availability is developed.

 Terese Bird

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

An iPod moment for e-readers?

While BDRA’s DUCKLING project investigates the viability of using e-readers / e-book readers for advanced delivery and enhanced presentation of curricula for remote learners, yesterday unveiled the Kindle DX version of its e-reader.

The DX is suggested as being just the thing for reading a range of media-like textbooks, newspapers, magazines and documents, as well as ‘a step in the direction of a paperless society’.

Primarily aimed at students, and heralded as a potential saviour by some voices in the newspaper industry, the device is 250% bigger than Amazon’s current offering of the Kindle 2.

The focus on the student demographic is an initial, encouraging sign for teams like ours which are engaged in exploring the effectiveness of e-readers for the delivery of learning content. Research, it seems, can walk in step with industry even in such a fluid technological age.

The Kindle DX, which goes on sale in the US this summer for $489 (£325), has a bigger, 9.7-inch screen (compared to the Kindle 2’s 6-inch screen) that displays larger pages, in better detail, from academic textbooks and newsprint titles.

‘You never have to pan, you never have to zoom, you never have to scroll. You just read,’ Amazon’s Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said at the New York launch. The DX can hold up to 3,500 books and currently claims access to 275,000 titles.

The device has a built-in PDF document reader and the company announced deals with three leading textbook publishers – Pearson, Wiley and Cengage – to put their content on the DX.

This, it is claimed, will give DX-users access to about 60% of higher education textbooks, an industry worth around $8 billion annually. For students, Bezos suggested, having access to hundreds of these titles in one device could be a ‘life-changing experience’.

The experience comes at high price and £325 or more would seriously dent the purchasing power of the average UK student in Higher Education. Never mind top-up fees, crushing student debts, shrinking employment prospects and the prevailing credit crunch, just the thought of stumping up £325 presents a steep price barrier.

What could a user get for the £325 then? Though vastly superior to reading off a computer monitor or mobile phone screen, the DX and their ilk are products of electronic-ink technology that creates clear, easy to read text even in bright sunlight.

However much excitement the launch of the DX generates in the ailing newsprint industry, there remain severe shortcomings, not least that content on the DX displays only in black and white and that it does not do video. So limited multimedia capability, then?

At the DX’s launch, Amazon also announced arrangements with three US news media giants – The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe – to put their editorial content on the device.

It is, however, not yet clear whether downloading a daily newspaper to an e-reader, rather than buying it in print, will be the panacea for the newspaper industry, already struggling with the cost of distributing paper products as well as facing plummeting circulation and advertising revenues in the face of online competition.

Why would someone, for instance, spend the equivalent of a year’s worth of newspapers on acquiring the DX when the same newspapers could be accessed on a smart-phone off the internet? Admittedly, the print would be smaller, but the reader is likely to get much more functionality out of a smart-phone.

Despite the high-profile launch, Amazon appears to be no closer to releasing the device in the UK. Amazon are locked in negotiations with mobile phone networks around Europe to try to agree a deal that would allow the Kindle’s Whispernet feature – which allows the device to update automatically using mobile phone technology – to work across Europe. Thus connectivity is a chimera, too!

Whether the DX storms the market or not, accompanying volumes (in print editions only!) that promise fuller use of the gadget, like The Complete User’s Guide to the Amazing Amazon Kindle and Kindle Formatting: The Complete Guide to Formatting Books for the Amazon Kindle are already available… on!

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2007, Alan Rusbridger (Editor, The Guardian) had predicted that ‘For the newspaper, there will be an iPod moment where someone creates a device that is so brilliant at reading text, that the newspaper becomes irrelevant’.

The DX might promise a small step in that direction, but as long as price, multimedia capability and connectivity remain barriers, all of which the iPod ‘family’ of gadgets effortlessly surmounted, Rusbridger’s seminal ‘iPod moment’ for e-readers appears some distance away.

Jai Mukherjee. 8 May 2009

My SONY ebook reader

When I say ‘my Sony ebook reader’, I actually don’t own one yet. The one I’m using now is a Sony property belonging to the DUCKLING project. Anyway, I ‘have’ an ebook in my care, and it is in my drawer right now.

First impressions: it’s light, thin, and most importantly good looking and fashionable, with its brown leather cover. I watched a You Tube video the other day about SONY ebook reader PRS-700 (a higher specification model, mine is PRS-505). The SONY 700 looks just cool! It has got new features such as:

· Disconnect with the cover
· Easy change text size from S, M, L, XL to XXL (in PRS-505, three options from S,M to L)
· Search, highlight, and add notes to the highlighted text
· Built in LED – easy read in the evening

More importantly, it has got the touch-screen display so that you can zoom in, move, turn a page with a pen or finger. However, these new and enhanced features don’t come cheap! A SONY 700 costs more than £300, almost doubled the price of a SONY 505!

I read my ebook on my train journey. The e-ink does work better under strong sunshine and dark condition (when the train was under a bridge or went through a tunnel) than reading from a laptop screen. The interface is quite easy. Turning page, changing text size, and changing menu are simple. I even found my favourite detective book written by Agatha Christie on my ebook reader! However, when the story was just about getting interesting, I got a message from my ebook, “to continue reading, visit to download the full version.”

I experimented with some PDF files on my ebook reader later on. It was easy and all PDFs display appropriately on my ebook, including one with Chinese characters. However, one of my colleagues Nichola found some problems when handling PDFs on ebook. She found that when you create a PDF from a original Word file, you need to complete the ‘document properties’ box, and must complete the ‘Author’ and ‘Title’ fields as a minimum, otherwise you will have a meaningless display of your PDF on the ebook. I didn’t come across this trouble. It might be because I’m using Word 2007, whereas when you use Word 97-03, you might get this frustration.

Another drawback I found with the ebook is that it doesn’t allow you to create a separate folder containing your PDFs, so all the PDFs that I uploaded mixed with those pre-loaded books. As a student, I might want to separate my studying material from my books for entertainment or just to sort my study materials in different categories. No doubt these features will improve with time once their utility goes beyond basic reading.

Ming Nie 10 April 2009

An encounter with an e-book reader

Last week I was on the train to London (to attend a conference at the University of London).  As I was looking around for a seat (no chance, of course!), I saw, as usual, mobile phones and iPods everywhere. Then I saw one person glued to his Sony e-book reader. The device has a brown leather case, so if I hadn’t seen one before I wouldn’t have known what it was. I saw a couple more e-book readers on the tube later on.

I think it won’t be too long before e-book readers claim a space in our jackets, handbags, rucksacks etc.

I had my own experience with an e-book reader last night. I managed to read a 65 page document (all of it!) on a Sony e-book reader. I didn’t feel much of a difference between reading the text on paper (except that I saved 65 pages of printing paper)!

E-book readers have a lot to contribute to distance and mobile learners; and their access to learning and reference material. The Duckling project (one of BDRA’s animals) has several trials going on with e-book readers for distance learning – so we’ll have a lot to report in the coming months on this. Watch this space!

E-book readers will become more popular with the average reader (I mean those who are not the ‘early adopter technophile’ type), as the manufacturers of e-book readers improve the technology, according to an article in the Economist (‘Well read’, Feb 14th 2009. pp. 73 – 74). With devices that can be connected to the internet wirelessly, and with dedicated book / paper downloading services (similar to Apple’s iTunes) becoming available, we’ll be looking at distance and mobile learners reaping the beneficial effects of this new mobile device. We’ll be looking at the ‘iPod moment’ of the text.

Palitha Edirisingha (BDRA, 19th Feb 2009)

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