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

E-books: It’s All About Timing

When I was a child, I remember skateboards arriving on my street in the mid 1970s as the latest fad. Some kids could ride them, most couldn’t (I didn’t even get close). Then skateboards seemed to fade for a decade or so, only to re-emerge in a much, much bigger way in the early 1990s with – I think – the West Coast surf/mountain bike/ showboard/grunge culture.

I may have got this cultural sequence and referencing wrong, but the point is, as with many things in life, the timing appears to be crucial. It’s the same with e-books.

Nine or ten years ago, Glassbook, MS Reader, Rocket E-book and many others were battling it out for universal acceptance. Poor revenue models (does anyone remember Steven King’s ‘just-leave-a-buck’ system?), a lack of useful content (out-of-copyright material is out of copyright – i.e. free – for a reason, but hats off to the excellent Project Gutenberg nevertheless), the unwillingness of publishers to do anything other than dabble and the dotcom crash all ensured e-books remained peripheral.

But now they’re back. But why will it be different this time around, especially in higher education? I would say that there are at least five good reasons.

First, the largest global online bookseller (see Amazon’s Kindle) and the one of the largest technological manufacturers (see Sony’s Reader) are now key players. Publishers will trust both of these companies. Second, there is an acceptance that all traditional media companies (music, news, publishing) have to produce new revenue models not based on rigid digital rights management (DRM). Third, the increasing willingness (albeit tentative at the moment) of academic publishers to release useful material in digital form. Fourth, the public realisation that the emergence of the e-book in no way signals the death of the printed book. (How can it? The paperback surely is an example, in design terms, of the perfect combination of form and function.) And finally, the technological developments in educational infrastructure and the changing expectations of students.

So what does this mean for the future? Well, I genuinely believe that we are not far away from a situation where a student on a wireless-enabled campus at the end of a lecture is able to connect to that university’s Amazon storefront, check his or her credit balance, buy and download the chapter, section or pages recommended by the lecturer (not the whole book, mind), and then read, annotate and bookmark this in the coffee shop five minutes later. That student may even click on the hyperlinked references in the text’s bibliography and purchase additional ‘knowledge chunks’.

In effect, rather than buying several large printed textbooks, many of whose chapters will never be consulted, a student, during his or her degree, will construct a bought library of many of these high-quality knowledge chunks, each of which is highly specific to the course of study.

The hardware – whether a bespoke device, iPhone or netbook – is fun but, despite the whiz/wow factor, really not that important. Neither is the format of the material (PDF or HTML/XML), although I prefer the latter as it  is far more powerful and long lasting.

But connectivity, mobility and, most crucially of all, content are absolutely key. Excellent standards in the first two are already with us; for the third, it’s time for the academic publishers to climb back on their skateboards. They may tumble once or twice, but they really cannot afford to miss this potential market, DRM or not. In our world of VLEs and PLEs, the gains will be enormous.

Simon Kear

%d bloggers like this: