Tuesday, March 30, 2010

E-readers: No One Has All the Answers Yet

Today I attended a presentation about a joint study being conducted between the English and Computer Science departments at the University of Maryland regarding the use of e-readers for academic reading. What was interesting about the study was that it wasn't just about whether students preferred using an e-reader device over standard textbooks, but whether the simultaneous use of TWO e-reader devices was more conducive to academic reading.

On the surface, using two devices to read instead of one seems a bit odd, but the premise of the study was based on research that showed that individuals engaged in academic reading (reading to learn, to synthesize information and translate into research notes) often had two or more sets of reading material (books, research papers, etc.) in front of them, and that they would go back and forth between those sources as they took their notes.

So at the beginning of the semester, the students in this literature course (which appropriately is a course that studies the history and future direction of books) were each given one of these e-reader devices developed by the Computer Science department. Each of these e-readers were about 7"x10", used E-ink for the display, allowed students to write notes with a stylus, and were optimized for quick page refreshes and overall book navigation. Now that the students have had a few weeks to acclimate to the use of the readers, they are each going to get a second one and try using them simultaneously. Although the presenter didn't go into great detail, the e-readers apparently have the ability to transfer and synchronize data with each other, so the students can decide to tackle the same source material with both devices or perhaps create references between two different documents.

To me, studies like these really highlight the fact that the e-reader market is still a young market and that no one has all the answers. Mainstream e-readers like the Kindle, the Nook, and the almost-here iPad may lead the e-reader market when it comes to casual reading, but there hasn't been as much of a focus on what works when it comes to e-readers for academic or professional use. As was discussed after the presentation, there may be a shift in the very concept of a "book" is as people explore not only different ways of consuming text-based content, but ways of producing and presenting the content, perhaps with the addition of other types of media.

It'll be interesting to see what comes out of all of this several years down the road.