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by Vault Education Editors | May 19, 2010


Lying belly-down on a sagging futon covered with a laptop, course books, notes and print-outs has, for many college and grad students, long been the preferred method of completing a course paper or studying for an exam. The concept is simple: everything you could possibly need is right at your fingertips. Yet the many months-long process necessary to attain this spread is expensive, heavy and environmentally unfriendly.

ASU student studies on her KindleIn an effort to address these issues, Amazon partnered with several institutions of higher education to distribute Kindles to students--all the materials at a student’s technological fingertips from day one. The hope was that the students involved would print less and spend less money on their textbooks without sacrificing classroom experience. The project included five colleges and universities: Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, it seems the experiments did not fare so well.

Students didn't like using the Kindle to study at any level--undergraduate or MBA.

Michael Koenig, the Darden School’s director of MBA operations, attributed the failure of Darden’s pilot program to the fact that the Darden students "must be highly engaged in the classroom every day." The Kindle is "not flexible enough. ... You can’t move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared to the paper alternatives." The Kindle doesn’t even allow users to collect documents in folders, such that documents for the same course are scattered willy-nilly around the interface.

Princeton students complained about the annotation tools, among other things. You can’t highlight or annotate PDF files at all on the Kindle--a significant issue given that most reserve materials at Princeton are put online in PDF form. It is also impossible to highlight in color, making important passages difficult to spot while flipping through or skimming.

Finally, Arizona State University got sued by both the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind for participating in the Kindle project.

Just because you can't study on an Kindle/iPad, it doesn't mean it's not a cool toy.

That said, most students seemed to appreciate the Kindle as a consumer-friendly e-reader. Ninety to ninety-five percent of participating Darden students said they would recommend the Kindle DX as a personal reading device to incoming students, and most Princeton students echoed this sentiment. Students using the Kindle were also happy to cut down their paper usage significantly, another goal of the project.

So, if the Kindle didn't work in the classroom, what could have been better? Apple’s iPad comes to mind, since many Princeton students suggested that a touch-screen or stylus might make for a better user experience. Yet the iPad doesn’t have e-paper technology, meaning it can’t be read easily outdoors; it only has 10 hours of battery life, as compared to a full week for the Kindle; and it has zero annotation tools built in. There might soon be an application to address the third concern, but that doesn’t erase the first two. Summing it up nicely, some students urged, "don't attempt to turn e-readers into mini-computers. I already have a laptop that I love."

All this leads me to believe an iPad might not be the right choice. Parents may therefore want to think twice about gifting the device to their high school senior as a graduation present as Apple suggests. While I’m sure their son or daughter will love how portable and aesthetically pleasing the iPad is, the notion that he will use it only for his studies most likely won’t prove true in the long run.

Of course, I could sit here all day coming up with fantastical visions of yet-to-be-invented, higher-education-friendly e-readers with long, hyphenated names. One would open up like a book and display two screens side by side, each of which could either display the same document or different documents. Another would have a highlighter-pen stylus with which you could mark a text long-hand, in color, and even draw diagrams. In short, it doesn’t seem that current e-reader options are good enough for the classroom yet. There is potential, and much of what both Amazon and Apple have done with the Kindle and iPad respectively is really impressive. Yet, when it comes down to it, it seems that most students would choose their sagging futon over the latest technology any day.

--Posted by Madison Priest


Filed Under: Education
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