Some time ago I wrote about reports of books being replaced by electronic devices for academic reading. My take was that this kind of techno-utopianism will not improve the quality of education because the current crop of devices is not designed for active reading. This hypothesis was put the test recently at Princeton and four other universities. At Princeton, 53 students in three courses participated in an experiment where they were asked to use a Kindle device for course-work related reading. Results reported by the Daily Princetonian indicate that while the amount of in-course printing dropped by about 50%, students complained about a variety of limitations of using these devices for course work. Not surprisingly,
…users said they often found its design ill-suited for class readings. Students and faculty participating in the program said it was difficult to highlight and annotate PDF files and to use the folder structure intended to organize documents, according to University surveys. The inability to quickly navigate between documents and view two or more documents at the same time also frustrated users.
These are basic aspects of active reading, the kind of reading that takes place in the office and in the classroom. The ability to annotate and navigate easily (seamlessly) are crucial to any device that will be a serious contender for classroom or office use. This is not news, really, but it’s nice to see some reality creeping into the hype about e-books.
On the other hand, it is not clear that decision makers recognize the significance of the findings. The same article quotes Janet Temos, director of the Educational Technologies Center at OIT:
[I] think students will begin buying these devices because they’re compelling, and our job is to make sure that the e-reserves program and other programs have material in a format that can easily be used and absorbed by these devices
This misses the point completely: students did not complain about lack of materials, they complained about inadequate interaction to support learning. It will be interesting to see if students at the other institutions report similar experiences, and if that will be enough evidence to give pause to those contemplating other such experiments in the near future. I am not saying that all such experiments are worthless, but that these kinds of experiments need to reflect the tasks around learning, and need to respect the limitations of technology.