Kindles not Replacing Textbooks Yet
May 17, 2011 7 Comments
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.