A study of how University of Washington graduate students integrated an Amazon Kindle DX into their course reading provides the first long-term investigation of e-readers in higher education. While some of the study’s findings were expected – students want improved support for taking notes, checking references and viewing figures – the authors also found that allowing people to switch between reading styles, and providing the reader with physical cues, are two challenges that e-readers will need to address in cracking the college market.
The UW last year was one of seven U.S. universities that participated in a pilot study of the Kindle DX, a larger version of the popular e-reader. UW researchers who study technology looked at how students involved in the pilot project did their academic reading.
“There is no e-reader that supports what we found these students doing,” said first author Alex Thayer, a UW doctoral student in Human Centered Design and Engineering. “It remains to be seen how to design one. It’s a great space to get into, there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Thayer will present the findings next week in Vancouver, B.C. at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, where the study received an honorable mention for best paper.
“Most e-readers were designed for leisure reading – think romance novels on the beach,” said co-author Charlotte Lee, a UW assistant professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering. “We found that reading is just a small part of what students are doing. And when we realize how dynamic and complicated a process this is, it kind of redefines what it means to design an e-reader.”
Some of the other schools participating in the pilot project conducted shorter studies, generally looking at the e-reader’s potential benefits and drawbacks for course use. The UW study looked more broadly at how students did their academic reading, following both those who incorporated the e-reader into their routines and those who did not.
“We were not trying to evaluate the device, per se, but wanted to think long term, really looking to the future of e-readers, what are students trying to do, how can we support that,” Lee said.
The researchers interviewed 39 first-year graduate students in the UW’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, 7 women and 32 men, ranging from 21 to 53 years old.
By spring quarter of 2010, seven months into the study, less than 40 percent of the students were regularly doing their academic reading on the Kindle DX. Reasons included the device’s lack of support for taking notes and difficulty in looking up references. (Amazon Corp., which makes the Kindle DX, has since improved some of these features.)
UW researchers continued to interview all the students over the nine-month period to find out more about their reading habits, with or without the e-reader. They found:
Students did most of the reading in fixed locations: 47 percent of reading was at home, 25 percent at school, 17 percent on a bus and 11 percent in a coffee shop or office.
The Kindle DX was more likely to replace students’ paper-based reading than their computer-based reading.
Of the students who continued to use the device, some read near a computer so they could look up references or do other tasks that were easier to do on a computer. Others tucked a sheet of paper into the case so they could write notes.
With paper, three quarters of students marked up texts as they read. This included highlighting key passages, underlining, drawing pictures and writing notes in margins.
A drawback of the Kindle DX was the difficulty of switching between reading techniques, such as skimming an article’s illustrations or references just before reading the complete text. Students frequently made such switches as they read course material.
The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.
Lee predicts that over time software will help address some of these issues. She even envisions niche software that could support reading styles specific to certain disciplines.
“You can imagine that a historian going through illuminated texts is going to have very different navigation needs than someone who is comparing algorithms,” Lee said.
It’s likely that desktop computers, laptops, tablet computers and yes, even paper, will play a role in academic reading’s future. But the authors say e-readers will also find their place. Thayer imagines the situation will be similar to today’s music industry, where mp3s, CDs and LPs all coexist in music-lovers’ listening habits.
“E-readers are not where they need to be in order to support academic reading,” Lee concludes. But asked when e-readers will reach that point, she predicts: “It’s going to be sooner than we think.”