Kindles not Replacing Textbooks Yet

Are e-readers ready to replace textbooks? The lower costs would be welcome, that’s for sure. But is the technology good enough to serve the same purpose as a physical book? Researchers gave students Kindles with their books loaded to see how they’d be used. Turns out, not much:

By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use it regularly, the researchers write, “some attempted to augment e-readers with paper or computers, others became less diligent about completing their reading tasks, and still others switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique.”

Now, I haven’t read the study so I don’t know if the Kindles made learning difficult or were merely unfamiliar and unpopular. After all, students have spent years developing study habits with physical books. Either way, they didn’t cut it. The article points out that the User Interface in Meatspace has incredible advantages:

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information.

That’s all true. I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a Kindle, but I’m an avid highlighter and found that feature extremely clunky – definitely a deal-breaker for me. Yes, the technology will probably improve with time. I’m told iPads are better at it, though I haven’t been impressed.

Of course, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. Once e-readers can handle my style of reading and highlighting, I’m sold. Just thinking about that incredible amounts of searchable information at my fingertips… *Drool*

The researchers raise one advantage that won’t be easy to overcome: the physical books have an edge at creating a better cognitive map of the information. The constant unconscious cues we get by holding the book – how thick the sections are, how many pages are left, which side of the page a passage is on – all help us remember the content. Julia’s post on Memory Champions comes to mind – we remember things much better if we tap into our spacial memory as well.

I don’t know if visual cues are as powerful as kinesthetic cues, but I’m sure we can tweak the programs to give better constant feedback about our place in the book. It might not fully compensate for the shift to digital, but it’ll help.

The study focused on whether e-readers could replace textbooks in classroom settings, which might be where they’re at the biggest disadvantage. Textbooks are dense with information students are expected to be able to recall unaided. Outside the classroom, we’re rarely unable (or forbidden!) to look something up. As more information gets indexed, we need to hold less of it in our immediate memories.

I’m curious to see a study of how spacial memory aids learning processes vs. learning facts. I suspect it helps most with facts – the exact things that searchable libraries make easiest to handle. While our education system requires the memorization of facts, physical textbooks will have an edge. If we ever change to a model that prizes process-based learning and allow students to tap into external fact-mines, that edge will go away.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

7 Responses to Kindles not Replacing Textbooks Yet

  1. Frank Bellamy says:

    It sounds like this study lacks a proper control. All it tells us is that students don’t use kindle textbooks much. It doesn’t tell us anything about how that compares to physical textbooks. To draw a real conclusion, someone would have to look at how students use physical textbooks, and compare the two. I was a physics major, and I know most of my physics textbooks I only ever opened to the pages that had the assigned problems on them. I didn’t learn physics from books, I learned it from lectures.

  2. Barry says:

    I like your focus on how the learning technology interacts with our mental habits. I’m generally suspicious of new technologies (I’ve found their interfaces to be very awkward and off-putting, and I really like physical objects, but searchability is a huge plus, and so is interconnectivity (those were two important elements of my ‘classroom of the future’ plan back in, oh, I think it was 1969). But realisitically, I see no reason why the digital books can’t mimic whatever it is we most like about physical books — our spatial memories can be jogged by slight variations in how the pages are set up, the bookmarking can be implemented by virtual post-it notes, and so forth. Eventually it’ll only be people of my generation who read dead trees, and that will be mostly for nostalgia.

  3. mkb says:

    I love my Kindle when I read for pleasure and the little percentage figure at the bottom of the page provides a cue much like the thickness of a section. However, the Kindle is not ideal for reading footnoted text. Again it’s an interface problem that will be solved some day, but at the moment if I were studying a field where footnotes are common and important, I’d not use a Kindle.

  4. Andrew T says:

    Parts of this remind me of the kids book series Animorphs – in it, the super-advanced alien is astonished we invented books so far ahead of computers, since they are such superior communicators of information šŸ™‚ A bit anvilicious but apparently with scientific merit!

  5. Kevin says:

    Clearly, the solution is a device which creates holographic projections of books, allowing us to interact with them spatially while preserving searchability and compactness.

  6. Harold I says:

    The Kindle is great for reading novels because generally you are not going back to look up something. I have bought non fiction on the kindle and wound up buying the hard cover because I wanted to look up something and found it more awkward on the kindle although the new kindle is much better than the first one. I have found that having both the book and the electronic book has many advantages for me as well as financially for the author.

  7. Rob says:

    I sort of like the idea, though the Kindle is rapidly becoming a shopping store front for Amazon. A pad with WiFi, all the years text books on it, with the ability to highlight and make notes, and Oxford dictionary, would be a killer tool, and so much lighter. To protect the authors, the texts can be downloaded for a small fee, and the due date is at the end of the quarter, or hell, even if it was the whole year, after which time the date stamp blips it off until you pay the fee again. The fee could be lets say the cost of one former text book. So for $100, your whole year’s worth of texts are downloaded from a college portal onto your pad.

    And think of how nice your back will feel not lugging text books around. One pad with a keyboard, WiFi printer capability, and I despise cloud shit myself, but so be it for now, and bang zoom, the ability to do papers is available anytime, anywhere on a campus.

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