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.