Kindle in the Classroom

How do eReaders affect the reading experience? In particular, do they improve reading comprehension? Do they enhance student learning in the classroom? Given the increasing cost of textbooks, the enormous amount of paper they use, to say nothing of their weight, these questions are especially relevant to students and faculty in academic settings.

Reed College, where I taught for many years, was recently one of seven schools selected to investigate the effect of Amazon’s Kindle DX on teaching and learning in higher education. Reed is a usual undergraduate institution, well known for its quirky, bright students with a traditional academic program that is among the most rigorous in the country. In terms of the percentage of its graduates who obtain the Ph.D. the College has consistently been among the highest ranking institutions in all disciplines. I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to teach there.

The study involved 43 students enrolled in three upper-level undergraduate courses--Seminar in English Literature, Seminar in French Literature and a Political Science course on nuclear politics--taught as is customary at Reed in relatively small conferences where students are expected to support their claims with specific textual citations and where, to keep the discussion moving forward, everyone needs to be able to locate in their own documents the passages cited by others.

The $489 Kindle DX was given to each student (they could keep them after the course was over) and they were asked to participate in the study on a voluntary basis but could obtain the course materials in printed form if they chose not to participate. Roughly 95% of the students signed up for the project.

Aside from issues of legibility (fair), battery life (good), paper savings (excellent), images, color features and graphs (poor), content availability (limited), etc. what interested me most was the evidence on comprehension of the reading materials. Both the students and faculty felt that their grasp of the material suffered greatly, largely because of the difficulty students had in highlighting and note taking.

One faculty member reported that “after a few weeks of trying to take notes by hand (or on their laptops, a number of students abandoned the Kindle DX” and chose to read the course materials in printed form. There was also uniform agreement that for an eReader to be of any use in an academic setting, it will have to be improved by easing note taking, highlighting and making comments in the margin.

In terms of referring to materials in class and switching back and forth between different pages in a document or multiple texts, the Kindle DX failed significantly on both accounts. Students missed thumbing through the pages, searching for notes they had made, and moving through the pages as quickly as they were used to with printed pages.

The evaluation concluded by noting that while students and faculty felt the Kindle DX “…in its current incarnation was unable to meet their academic needs, many felt that once technical and other issues have been addressed, eReaders will play a significant, possible a transformative, role in higher education.” The basis for this prediction eludes me for I see no evidence in the report to justify this belief. Perhaps they were thinking of the iPad, to be similarly tested next year by students and faculty at Reed.

I recognize the sample at Reed was small, that the academic conditions there are not representative of most colleges and that it was a very informal study of advanced classes without a comparison group that read the same materials in paper versions. Nevertheless, the findings at Reed are consistent with those reported by other colleges and universities that have tested the Kindle DX. They are also in agreement with a good many critics who have described their own experiences in reading non-academic materials with an eReader.

Like some of them, I also worry that reading on these devices will become an even more passive process than it already is. Yes, we read for pleasure and for entertainment and when we read for these reasons we don’t usually take notes or mark up the pages. Instead we move rapidly from sentence to sentence, rarely stopping to mull over any single one. However, if you can easily put pen to page, as I do with any book, then reading becomes an occasion to think further about the material, one that is not unlike any educational experience.


Dom Greco said...

Any idea why designers of electronic readers do not design their readers with attractive and useful features for note taking, annotation and highlighting features? Any published articles explaining why such useful features are not available? It seems like there is demand for such features and the market is for some reason not providing a product to meet this important need. One has to wonder why.

Richard Katzev said...

I appreciate your comment and your questions. I have no idea why designers have not addressed the note-taking and annotating features. No doubt it is a complicated technical problem. I also know that there isn't a lot of demand for these features. Outside of an academic situation readers rarely take notes or mark up the pages. Just observe what most readers do while they read a printed book. There is very little formal discussion or analysis of this matter that I have read. I know I am not alone in expressing my concerns but the degree of public concern about this issue is relatively small, if that

Dom Greco said...

Did you ever write, or consider writing, a blog on the subject of marginalia, or the books that have been written on that subject?

Richard Katzev said...


I have read or more accurately skimmed some of the books on that subject. However, I didn't find them very interesting. I appreciate your suggestion and when I return from my sojourn in Italy, I look at them once again.


Stefanie said...

I've not seen the Kindle DX but as you know I have a Kindle 2. It has bookmarking, underlining and annotation/notetaking that works just fine. You can even search your notes. It isn't perfected and it takes some getting used to but it works just fine. Amazon has actually just started backing up notes and bookmarks online so you can have access to your stuff where there is an internet connection. I've not figured out yet why I would want access to my notes without also having the book in hand though.

As far as your worry about reading becoming passive on an e-reader, I wouldn't worry. Kindles don't do anything but display books so there is no distraction. I'd worry about multipurpose devices like the iPad where there is the temptation to play games, watche videos, check your email and do just about anything else except read.