More about e-books and readers of them

My interest in e-books and their role in e-learning has stayed high, both for unexpected reasons and because of further news.

Interviewed in The Guardian, John Makinson, Penguin’s chief executive, told us that what matters is that people read, not how they choose to do it. Penguin is part of Pearson, a company dominated by educational publishing. Makinson thinks ‘the very definition of a book is up for grabs’. Penguin has just published a version of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for the iPad (in the US) with embedded scenes from the TV adaptation, plus excerpts from the soundtrack and Follett’s video diary that he kept when making the TV.

The same day, The Guardian  reported that Amazon UK had brought out a new version of the Kindle e-book reader, to hold as many as 3,500 books. Amazon UK now also has an e-book store with 400,000 titles for the Kindle.

Learning technologists cannot simply ignore this kind of news, even if their academic colleagues in faculties and departments are slow to respond to it! BDRA’s DUCKLING project showed that an early model e-book reader probably had too many disadvantages to be popular among academics and students, but, like all new technology, readers will improve – and already have.

I was surprised last week by a technophobe I know well. Her very excited response was to an e-book on the iPad. Her excitement was not just because the screen was clear, the font could be enlarged, the pages were easy to turn, or the iPad could hold thousands of books. It was because she has become allergic to book dust and cannot read paper books for long because of that. She saw the iPad as opening up boundless new opportunities for dustless reading.

Doubtless somebody somewhere is considering doing research on how e-book readers can compensate for learners’ disabilities of one kind or another. That could be a new field for BDRA.

David Hawkridge

On the increase: Online conferences & e-books

BDRA’s very successful annual Learning Futures Festival 2010 for a week in January was online for the first time, and I notice that the Open University’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference will also be online for the first time, June 22-23. BDRA’s was truly international. The OU one may turn out to be so too, with its title: ‘’How does openness affect learning/content/access/teaching?’

The trend to go online for conferences is likely to accelerate in the face of cost-cutting measures in many universities here and abroad. There will always be those who prefer face-to-face meetings, but there’s no doubt that online conferences offer plenty of excellent opportunities to learn and to make new contacts, besides being less costly.

E-books are on the increase too, according to the JISC national e-books observatory project. Because of research I did years ago on IT for learners with disabilities, I took a look at a new practical guide from TechDis (JISC’s agency for such matters), entitled ‘Towards accessible e-book platforms.’ It advises on matters such as magnification, colour change, keyboard access and text to speech

Research at the University of Washington has called in question the large-screen Kindle DX e-book reader. At the University of Virginia, 80% of MBA respondents said they wouldn’t recommend it.

According to Stephen Downes, that inveterate blogger, however, Sony is more optimistic.  Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading business division claims:  “Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content”.

It’s going to be interesting to see how students taking BDRA’s new MSc in Innovative Education and Training offered through supported distance learning, make use and take advantage of e-books and e-book readers. If you haven’t already seen the details of this new programme, have a look at

David Hawkridge

Delving into DUCKLING, e-books and e-book readers

Delivering University Curricula: Knowledge, Learning and INnovation Gains (the DUCKLING project) at the University of Leicester in BDRA is investigating the use of podcasting, Sony e-book readers and Second Life by distance learners taking postgraduate courses in Occupational Psychology and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). I shall be delving into DUCKLING over the next few days and may soon have more comments on it for my next blog. It’s certainly a remarkable research project, as I heard during a recent PANTHER seminar at the university, when two staff from Occupational Psychology and one from Education (TESOL) told us about their experiences in developing and using podcasts in their teaching.

Recently I picked up from the virtual airwaves some news that may interest you about other e-books and e-book readers (none of which I’ve actually seen or used as yet). Wiley has joined Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble, O’Reilly and many other publishers to offer e-books in the Scribd Store, which enables you to embed and share documents in a Flash viewer.  Scribd has been working with publishers to sell downloadable digital versions of their books, available as PDFs, and excerpts can be shared through the Scribd reader. I gather that this strategy is seen as a counterweight to the closed Kindle store.

Spring Design, developer of the new dual-screen Alex eReader, has struck a deal with Google that gives users access to more than 1m Google books. The device is a Google Android-based platform with Web browser, Wi-Fi connectivity, audio and video playback and image viewing in several formats.

Ray Kurzweil is presenting a platform rather than a physical device. The Blio software is free and available for PCs, iPod Touch and iPhone. He says, “We have high-quality graphics and animated features. Other e-readers are very primitive.” One of Blio’s major advantages is that the software offers full colour as opposed to e-Ink’s monochrome, and text-to-speech is built in.

I won’t even mention use of the Apple iPad, which is not yet the subject of BDRA research. Nor is the big, thin and bendy Skiff eReader, with an 11.5” display or Philips Liquavista colour eReader that uses ‘electrowetting’ display technology, whatever that is. And Plastic Logic’s Que reader has a big screen (8.5” x 11”) but a big price (US$650).

The enTourage eDGe interactive dualbook combines an e-book reader, notepad and tablet netbook in one device. McGraw-Hill Education has announced a strategic alliance with its makers, enTourage Systems, to deliver nearly 100 top-selling McGraw-Hill HE titles to the device, spanning disciplines such as business, economics, science, mathematics, humanities, foreign languages and social sciences. Students purchasing these titles through the enTourage Systems e-book store can read the text, take and share notes online, search for phrases, listen to accompanying audio, and view images and video in full colour.

Toys for learning and teaching? We shall see.

David Hawkridge

What do students say about technologies?

Every year the psychology course team at Leicester organizes a conference for their distance learning students studying MSc in Occupational Psychology or Psychology of Work. Usually the conference attracts 25-30 students; this year due to the credit crunch 15 students were able to attend.

This 3-day conference, held from 29 April to 1 May this year, offers a really good opportunity for distance learners to meet their tutors and other students on the same course. I met a student from Ireland who told me that last year she met another student from Ireland who’s studying on the same course. After they went back Ireland, they started having regular meetings to discuss the course and study.

This year gave us a chance to give out a survey about student access to and their insights on how to use three particular technologies: Podcasting, Second Life and e-book readers to enhance the delivery of the course. Ten students completed the survey; while the sample is small, however, the responses are quite indicative to Duckling research.

Basically, students commented on how the three technologies have or might have contributed to their learning as a distance learner in three key areas:

• Improving communication with tutors

Some students have already listened to the podcasts, although these podcasts were only made available on Blackboard in April. Their comments are really encouraging, particularly with respect to improving communication with their tutors. Some indicative comments are:

“It makes the course less impersonal – e.g. listening to lecturer’s voice on podcasts is a big improvement than reading notes.”

“Podcasting – since in many ways it resembles direct communication.”

“Podcasts allow you to hear the tones of the conversation, and it is more (feels more interactive). I think it helps bridge the gap in aspects of distance learning.”

• Increasing mobility and flexibility in learning

Both podcasts and e-book readers are identified by students as ways to increase mobility and flexibility in learning. For example:

“Podcasts are excellent to listen to on the bus, for example. And e-book readers make it easier to travel, (and) still have the resources I would need.”

“I would think the e-book reader to have so that you can take a lot of reading material with you when travelling or waiting for the dentist. I do not (from my knowledge) think that e-book reader should replace printed books, but think it would an excellent addition.”

• Increasing the relevance of the course to learners’ contexts

One of the students thinks that the three technologies all have potential to provide on-demand learning to suit a learner’s particular context.

There are suggestions or expectations on future use of these technologies. For example, one student recommended providing podcasts for all modules and also podcasts for e-library.

Although the results are collected from an initial small sample group, they are reassuring. The results confirm what has been identified by the course team as their main challenges in curriculum delivery: increasing flexibility and mobility; engaging time-poor students; enhancing student-student and teacher-student interaction; and improving the relevance of the content and activities to learners’ contexts. There are some points here, perhaps, of wider relevance and interest to all online teachers.


Ming Nie 09 May 2009

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