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Why Bother?

When Amazon released the Kindle a couple of years ago, it generated lots of talk about it (or something like it) being the future of educational printed materials.

Since then, some colleges have been testing the use of the Kindle DX, the larger, more book-sized version, to replace analog textbooks for some of their classes.

One of those schools, Princeton, just released some data about their pilot and most of those participating found the results to be somewhat disappointing.

But in spite of the cost savings, some students and professors said they found the technology limiting.

The Kindle, a handheld, electronic device manufactured by amazon.com, allows users to store, read, highlight and annotate books and other documents using its display screen.

Notice what’s missing from that list? There’s no way for students and faculty to edit or add to the content on their devices so that other members of the community can see it.

In other words, there’s nothing new about these textbooks other than the format by which the information is delivered. Same old material, still controlled by the publisher, with no options for students to interact with it.

Of course, based on the comments of some of the teachers involved, interactivity really wasn’t an issue anyway.

Wilson School professor Stan Katz, who taught WWS 325 this fall, said he also found the device ill-suited for his course.

“I found it disappointing for use in class because I emphasize close work with the text, and that ideally requires students to mark up the text quite a bit,” Katz said. “Though it doesn’t prevent highlighting, the annotation function is difficult to use, and the keyboard is very small,” he added.

But Wilson School professor Daniel Kurtzer, who taught WWS 555A, said he found the Kindle conducive to the format of his class because it consisted of “very traditional reading.”

And likely, very traditional teaching.

However, to me the how digital books are being used at Princeton wasn’t the worst part of this story.

Students in WWS 325: Civil Society and Public Policy, who were given Kindles, printed an average of 762 pages, compared to the roughly 1,373 pages printed in past years, a 55 percent difference in paper use.

Kindle owners in WWS 555A: U.S. Policy and Diplomacy in the Middle East printed an average of 962 pages, while those without the e-readers printed an average of 1,826 pages, a 53 percent difference.

Why is anyone with an electronic book printing pages from their digital materials at all?

Maybe a few sheets, but 962 pages is likely very close to the size of the original analog college textbook those students used to pay a small fortune for (and are probably still paying for the Kindle version).

So anyway, the bottom line in all this is that teachers and students at Princeton are using a portable, connected digital device in almost exactly the same way they used the also-portable, unconnected analog versions it replaced.

Why bother?


Image of the Kindle DX from the Wikimedia Commons and is used under a Creative Commons license.

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3 Comments

  1. Magistra

    I’m not sure that they are printing pages from their digital materials. Looking at the original article, it seems that the printing includes everything, so it probably has health center forms, drafts of papers, and so on. The comparison of numbers feels about right for if they’re not printing out readings.

    I don’t have a Kindle, but, as a teacher, I do have a pdf version of two of the four textbooks that I use. It is very nice to be able to search for a term and to project onto a whiteboard.

    There are other things, though, where a hard copy textbook is much better. As I’m prepping, I’ll often open up the hard copy to flip back and forth. The hard copy is much less fragile (I can see Princetonians printing out things that they take to a football game, for example.).

    As for the other two textbooks I use, one is mainly an accessory. It’s for the Aeneid, and we use the online versions of the text at nodictionaries.com and thelatinlibrary.com a lot, and I’m having my students make a wiki commentary on the Aeneid. It’s nice, though, to have the book for its commentary. The format is clear, and it’s often faster for us to find a certain passage by flipping through it instead of scrolling through the text or searching on a word.

    Finally, since my rant is warmed up, the biggest problem that I have with digital textbooks and digital notes is that they’re so limiting. I used to type up my prep notes, but I don’t any more. I write them out on Cornell notepaper that I printed myself. I can mark up the text quickly and easily. I can write in alternate translations over a word. I can draw quick sketches in the margin to remind myself of details. I can write side notes without having to switch to commenting- I just move over to the side. When students take notes by typing, they seem to be much more one to one than those who take notes by writing. They tend not to make marginal notes; more effort is involved in switching than just writing in the margin. They tend to type in one translation instead of writing variations. They tend to want it to look like a finished text instead of notes. I don’t know if they typing causes this or those who have this frame of mind tend to type.

    This narrowing of options, to me, is the most worrying aspect of digital notes. It makes me think of the change from hand-written manuscripts to printed books: yes, the knowledge was spread more widely, but there was less of a chance to customize a text, and a lot of the individuality was lost. If I had a book written, I could have it made exactly to my needs. Things could be left out or new sections added. I could choose images. I would be more likely to be able to afford the printed book, but it would not be custom made for my needs; the printer would make it for his idea of the audience.

    I think that the takeaway from my comment should be something like your last line. There are advantages to digital forms of books and notes. They are not better in every way, though; there are some things that a printed book or a handwritten page of notes can do that a wiki or a pdf cannot. There are some things that the wiki can do that the handwritten page never could. Neither will be perfect in all situations; one needs to look at the big picture and figure out what the goal is before committing irrevocably to one thing or the other.

  2. T. J. Hart

    I guess the “bother” is that the study shows how poor a job e-book makers are at making e-books. These studies that point out failures are important, but not for the reasons the authors of the studies might think. It seems to me there was a study in the early 1900’s about the impact of good illumination (light) had on worker productivity. Currently the study is being used to show how worker engagement and empowerment improves output, not the intensity of light. Hopefully these studies will do the same kind of thing.

  3. For anyone who is an avid reader, there is no replacement for the experience of a book in the hands. In addition, as a teacher I can’t imagine my students using Kindle for their textbooks. Even their online textbooks aren’t a favorite. My students love to flip through the pages of their science and social studies books. You can’t do that with electronic versions.

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