New computers – Kindle – Ebooks and education

Recently I was discussing the use of technology in education, when an odd (to me) question came up.  It was about the use of ebooks.  That wasn’t really high on my radar on the tech-in-ed landscape.  When I started (good grief, more than 30 years ago) the use of computers for textbooks was a vague, blue-sky idea that a guy named Vannevar Bush had once talked about.  (Actually, he was talking about a desk, rather than a book.)

Recently, of course, there has been a lot of discussion about ebooks.  School boards have been looking into cost savings.  Major tech corporations and publishing conglomerates are getting on the bandwagon.  So, her interest was natural.

Specifically, she wanted to know:

> Perhaps you talk to me a bit about why (from a non-environmental
> standpoint) it’s important for students to use digital e-books?
> Is there a learning curve when it comes to learning from an ebook
> rather than a textbook? Is there a shorter attention span?
> What about eye strain?
> How would this effect the structure of learning?

This I could do, having been given a Kindle for Christmas this year.  I have just finished doing my first review for the series, using an ebook on the device.  Definite tradeoffs: it was easier to grab quotes, much harder to make notes, easier to search, and a right royal pain to try and flip back and forth to check notes, index, etc.  Also a complete pain to check references in other works.

In terms of education, and using study materials in school, it was easier to grab quotes — which would make copying and plagiarism easy and very tempting.  That’s a bad thing.  It is much harder to make notes, and makes study, or writing your own paper, more difficult.  Again, given that the purpose of many assignments is to get students to practice creating their own writing, this is a bad thing.

On the other hand, it’s easier to search, and that’s good for studying.

But it’s a right royal pain to try and flip back and forth to check notes (most books don’t have footnotes any longer, they are no endnotes–at the back of the book), the index, appendices, and other material in the book.  It is also a complete pain to check references in other works — definitely bad for studying and learning.

In terms of it being “important” for students to use ebooks: as a former public school teacher I don’t think it is.  The only reasons would be cost, and getting up to date materials.  Frankly, the quality of almost all school texts is absolutely appalling, so having the latest version of tripe isn’t all that important.  So, that just leaves cost.

There is a learning curve to using an e-reader, but a fairly small one.  No, I take that back.  Actual reading isn’t that hard, but you do have to learn something about filing, arranging, and accessing material on the device, particularly in a school/learning situation.

The small screen size is a bit annoying, although you generally can increase the font size.  (The book I just finished reviewing was in PDF, and the options for font size for that are very much less.)  Generally I didn’t find much eye strain, although I’m used to reading small print, but in low light it was pretty awful.

In terms of learning structure, there could be some advantages.  As a teacher, I could create notes and send them to the devices of all the students: it would help that they could not say they didn’t have the assignment  :-)

  • Greg Charland

    Great series!

    Sounds like you’re expecting an e-Reader to work like the books it’s replacing. I’ve never been a margin-note-taker or highlighter myself. I usually read with a notepad.

    I haven’t done any “serious” reading on our Kindles but I’ve seen my kids using tons of bookmarks and making their own list of references using OneNote or a word processor. They’ve got lots of “bookmark name = key point” documents. The exact positioning can also be used for this.

    Obviously the Fire and keyboard Kindles are better suited to named bookmarks but we can easily do the same based on position numbers…

    I don’t think there’s ever going to be an electronic equivalent of “put your index finger on this page, your thumb on that page, and flip back and forth” but I also expect the interfaces on these devices to continue to evolve as they’re used in more demanding settings.