Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog: E-textbooks flunk an early test

E-textbooks flunk an early test

May 12, 2011

When it comes to buzzy new computer technologies, schools have long had a tendency to buy first and ask questions later. That seems to be the case once again with e-readers and other tablet-style computers, which many educators, all the way down to the kindergarten level, are lusting after, not least because the gadgets promise to speed the replacement of old-style printed textbooks with newfangled digital ones. In theory, the benefits of e-textbooks seem clear and compelling. They can be updated quickly with new information. They promise cost savings, at least over the long haul. They reduce paper and photocopier use. They can incorporate all manner of digital tools. And they’re lightweight, freeing students from the torso-straining load of book-filled backpacks.

But schools may want to pause before jumping on the e-textbook bandwagon. This morning, at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Vancouver, a team of researchers from the University of Washington, led by doctoral student Alex Thayer, is presenting the results of a year-long study of student reading, and the findings suggest that e-readers may be deeply flawed as replacements for traditional textbooks. Students find the devices cumbersome to use, ill-suited to their study routines, and generally underwhelming. Paper textbooks, it seems, may not be quite as obsolete as they appear.

In the fall of 2009, seven U.S. universities, including the University of Washington, launched pilot programs to evaluate how well Amazon’s Kindle DX, a large-format version of the popular e-reader, fulfills the needs of students. At the University of Washington, 39 graduate students were given Kindles, and their use of the device was monitored through diary entries and interviews. 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.”

One of the key themes emerging from the study, as well as from earlier research into reading behavior, is that people in general and students in particular read in a variety of ways. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a text, reading without interruption. Sometimes they skim a text to get a quick sense of the content or the argument. Sometimes they search a text for a particular piece of information or a particular topic. Sometimes they skip back and forth between two or more sections of a text, making comparisons. And sometimes they take notes, make marginal annotations, or highlight passages as they read. Reading is, moreover, a deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic activity, subject to all kinds of individual quirks. Every reader is unique.

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. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Some of the problems the University of Washington students had with the Kindle – hard-to-read charts, lack of support for color illustrations, inability to write notes directly on the text – are fairly easy to fix. (Indeed, touchscreen tablets like the iPad, together with apps like Inkling, have already fixed some of them.) But a more fundamental problem for the students was the e-reader’s unsuitability for certain modes of reading and for shifting quickly between different modes. And because that problem is intrinsic to the nature of a screen-based reading device, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome entirely.

The researchers point out that, in addition to supporting various styles of navigation, a printed book provides many subtle cues about a book’s structure and contents. We make a “cognitive map” of a physical book as we read it:

When we read, we unconsciously note the physical location of information within a text and its spatial relationship to our location in the text as a whole … These mental images and representations do more than just help us recall where ideas are located in a given text. We use cognitive maps to retain and recall textual information more effectively, making them useful tools for students who are reading academic texts to satisfy specific goals.

E-readers “strip away some of these kinesthetic cues,” and that’s another reason why so many students ended up frustrated with the Kindle. When students “have no cognitive maps on which to rely,” the researchers write, “the process of locating information takes longer, they have less mental energy for other tasks, and their ability to maintain their desired levels of productivity suffers.” It’s certainly possible to provide on-screen tools, such as scroll bars and progress meters, that can aid in the creation of cognitive maps for e-books, but it’s unlikely that a digital book will ever provide the rich and intuitive set of physical cues that a printed book offers.

The researchers provide an illuminating case study showing how important cognitive mapping can be:

[One student] used kinesthetic cues such as folded page corners and the tangible weight of the printed book to help him locate content quickly. He told us that “after I’ve spent some time with the physical book, I know … exactly how to open it to the right page. … I kind of visually can see where I am in the book.” His physical experience with the text changed dramatically when he began using his Kindle DX: He lost these kinesthetic cues and spent much more time hunting for information than he had previously done. He stopped using the Kindle DX for his assigned academic readings because he wanted to remain as productive and efficient as he was before he received his Kindle DX.

None of this is to say that e-readers and tablets won’t find a place – an important place, probably – in schools. Students already do a great deal of reading and research on computer screens, after all, and there are many things that digital documents can do that printed pages can’t. What this study does tell us, though, is that it’s naive to assume that e-textbooks are a perfect substitute for printed textbooks. The printed page continues to be a remarkably robust reading tool, offering an array of unique advantages, and it seems to be particularly well suited to textual studies. Traditional textbooks may be heavy, but they’re heavy in a good way.

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