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Rethinking the Textbook in the Digital Age
Ebooks have become an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional paper book. They're much more portable - you can fit hundreds of ebooks on a reader the size of a small paperback - and are often more affordable. While ebooks may never replace the heft and beauty of a big, glossy art or coffee table book, many people also appreciate ebooks because no trees are harmed in their making.
Few people spend as much time or money on their books as college students, making higher education a prime market for innovations in reading technology. A few colleges recently worked out a deal with Amazon to test the Kindle ebook reader as a possible alternative to textbooks. The Kindle has an 'electronic paper' display that looks like paper, rather than the eye-aching backlit display of a computer, and boasts a capacity for over 200 titles in a device that weighs only 10.3 ounces. It also connects via cell phone networks, allowing users to download books - or visit Wikipedia - without having to find a wireless hot spot.
Last fall, select students at seven colleges were given the Amazon Kindle DX pre-loaded with all their semester's textbooks and readings. In early 2010, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), Princeton University and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business all released early results from their pilot programs. Reviews were mixed, and overall, school administrators felt that the device was 'not quite ready for prime time.'
The biggest problem students had with the Kindle is that it didn't adapt well to the exhaustive note-taking and cross-referencing they perform with their books. Most students struggled with the Kindle's margin notes system and found that they couldn't annotate PDF documents at all. When working with standard ebooks, they found that the Kindle's system of digital underlining and corresponding notes wasn't nearly as effective as a set of old-fashioned highlighter pens. Without being able to color-code underlines or flip quickly between annotated pages, returning to and navigating through their notes was nearly impossible - clearly a problem for people trying to use the Kindle for research.
Poor navigation was also at the heart of the other major criticisms of the Kindle. The page numbers don't correspond to the paper versions of the same texts, even in the same editions, thus making it difficult for students to follow along in class when professors reference a specific page number in the text for discussion. Even more problematic is the fact that users can't have multiple texts open at the same time. Students are accustomed to having several books spread out in front of them, jumping easily from text to text as they research and write papers, and many feel that this capability is 'extremely important' to their work.
Michael Koenig, director of operations at Darden, noted that this is exceptionally problematic for students in the fast-paced world of business school. According to Koenig, students at Darden typically have to keep track of 125 different business cases just in their first quarter. It's essential that they be able to quickly move between class readings, business cases and their own notations both in the classroom and during their research. Because of its poor navigation and lack of cross-referencing, this turned out to be nearly impossible with the Kindle.
Some students did enjoy their Kindle experience. Referring to these individuals as 'power users,' the chief information officer at CWRU said that some of his students actually liked the annotation system on the Kindle. Koenig also noted that some of the Darden students were tech savvy enough to comfortably navigate the device in the classroom, although they only comprised 15% of the school's testing group. Even the students who found the navigation frustrating saw some redeeming qualities in the Kindle. The device's portability was very popular, especially among business students who travel frequently for internships and job interviews. Many students also enjoyed using it for pleasure reading, when note taking and cross-referencing isn't required. Although 75% of Darden's students said they would not recommend the Kindle for future MBA students, 90% said they would recommend it to family and friends for casual reading.
Electronic Readers Fail to Meet Accessibility Standards
Navigability on the Kindle turned out to be an even bigger problem for one segment of the college population: blind students. Arizona State University (ASU) had been one of the early adopters of the Kindle pilot program, but last summer the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) brought a lawsuit against ASU on behalf of a blind student. The lawsuit alleged that the use of the Kindle in classes violates both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because it isn't sufficiently accessible to blind students. This is because the Kindle only has very limited text to speech capabilities. It can read books aloud, but not the menu, making it impossible for blind students to navigate or even turn on the device without the assistance of a seeing person.
ASU insisted that there was no discrimination because blind students weren't prevented from signing up for the classes that used the Kindle and alternative reading options were always offered. The ACB and NFB contended that this argument was short sighted, amounting to 'callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education,' and ASU finally settled the lawsuit in January. No monetary damages were involved, but the university did agree to seek out other devices that are more accessible to the blind if they eventually choose to roll out more ebook readers.
The settlement prompted Case Western Reserve University to sign an agreement with the Justice Department stating that CWRU would not deploy electronic readers until the devices can be made more friendly to the blind. Mace Mentch, CWRU's ITS education assessment specialist, asserted that 'We have a commitment to provide equal opportunity access for all students... We will not move forward with the Kindle until it is accessible to blind or low-vision students.'
Because colleges are such an attractive market, many tech companies are undoubtedly watching these experiments closely. Apple has already started to move in on the ebook market with electronic reader capabilities on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, devices that offer a variety applications that appeal to students. If Amazon wants the Kindle to become the 21st century textbook, they'll need to make it both more accessible to the blind and more adaptable to scholarship - and fast.
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