E-book readers & higher education: the wave of the future?

It seems like every month a new e-book reader (or a newer version of one already available) is unleashed into the market. You have your iPads, Kindles, Sony Readers, Nooks, Bebooks, and the list goes on. As a librarian (or as some might say “cybrarian“), it’s important to consider the impact new technologies, like e-book readers, have on the methods people us to access information. In one scenario, it’s easy to imagine the classrooms-of-the-future filled with students glued to their paper-thin, completely interactive computers. Or maybe we won’t need physical classroom space at all and instead students will simply log into course management systems, like Blackboard, in order to listen to lectures and participate in a digital classroom.  It’s too soon to tell what the classrooms-of-the-future will look like, but with the unveiling of state-of-the-art technologies like Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s soon-to-be released Windows Phone 7, the future landscape of education and how we access information is changing, and it’s changing fast….

With this in mind I began to wonder whether all these technologies are a good fit with the principles and practices of higher education. Sure they’re great fun for personal use, but do they fulfill college students’ needs for information? A number of studies and pilot programs have examined student response to incorporating these new learning tools into their studies and course work. The results are interesting, to say the least.

  • In April, North Carolina University provided five student with iPads. Their assignment was to blog about their experiences with it. While most of the students loved the iPad for personal use/entertainment purposes, most of them couldn’t rationalize its use in an educational setting.  (You can read the students’ blogs in their entirety here.)
  • The Kindle is no different. In June, Amazon distributed the Kindle DX to students at seven different universities and their reaction was that it’s a great tool for recreational reading, but it doesn’t pass the test in classroom use. Their complaints? A poor replacement for a textbook, too hard to navigate, and difficult to use in a classroom. (Read the full article from Bloomberg Businessweek here.)
  • Princeton students also gave e-book readers a try. As part of a pilot program in September 2009, 50 students received a Kindle DX. Most students found it too difficult to use and missed the ability to highlight text, dog-ear pages, and insert sticky notes. (Read more here.)

As I write this blog, even more universities are piloting e-book reader programs this fall- Seton Hill University, Northwest Kansas Technical College, George Fox University, Reed College. (Read details about their pilot programs here.)

I believe that there are some very practical and educational purposes for these e-book readers. At least one institution of higher education use e-book readers for interlibrary loan services. When a professors needs the latest edition of a book immediately, the library can download the digital version to Kindle or whichever e-book reader supports it.  I can also see the appeal of an electronic book format for those disciplines that constantly update their information, like in the sciences and in the field of medicine.  An added bonus is that students studying these fields don’t have to carry around all those heavy textbooks.

Maybe as future students begin rising through the ranks of higher education, the current complaints of e-book readers will no longer be an issue and instead replaced with a higher understanding of technology. We’re already seeing that in regards to the students’ information-seeking habits. These e-book readers may start shaping the way we process information.  As a result, future students may become unfamiliar with the current & age-old practices of writing notes in a book’s margins, highlighting important passages, and bookmarking specific sections (all of which have been argued at one time as drawbacks to e-book readers) and instead are more comfortable using e-book readers.

Personally, it seems to me that the jury verdict on e-book readers and a potential love affair with higher education is still out, but I look forward to the continual advances and experiments with new technologies in a higher education setting.

What’s your thoughts? Do you see e-book readers as the wave of the future in academia? Post a comment below!

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