Even before Apple announced the iPad, higher-education technologists predicted that e-book readers were on the brink of becoming a common accessory among college students; last fall, two-thirds of campus CIOs said they believed e-readers would become an “important platform for instructional resources” within five years, according to the Campus Computing Project.
Now, as several major universities finish analyzing data from pilot programs involving the latest version of the Amazon Kindle,  officials are learning more about what students want out of their e-reader tablets. Generally, the colleges found that students missed some of the old-fashioned note-taking tools they enjoyed before. But they also noted that the shift had some key environmental benefits. Further, a minority of students embraced the Kindle fairly quickly as highly desirable for curricular use.
If one clear consensus emerged from the studies that have been finalized at Princeton University, Case Western Reserve University and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, it is this: For students who were given the Kindle DX and tried to use it for coursework, the inability to easily highlight text was the biggest lowlight of the experience.
“Because it was difficult to take notes on the Kindle, because PDF documents could not be annotated or highlighted at all, and because it was hard to look at more than one document at once, the Kindle was occasionally a tool that was counter-productive to scholarship,” Princeton researchers wrote in a summary of their study, released Monday.
“Many users thought that the addition of a touch screen and stylus would make for a much better device,” they wrote, noting that while the Kindle does allow students to digitally underline text, students did not like having to type corresponding margin notes on the device’s keypad.
The students also wanted it to be easier to navigate among annotated pages, and wished there was some way to impose a coding system for annotations, similar to how some students use differently colored highlighters to organize their annotations in bound books.
Indeed, highlighting and note-taking went hand in hand with another feature students on multiple campuses considered important: navigation. Students did not like being unable to have multiple texts open at the same time.
“When using books as sources to write papers, navigation is extremely important,” wrote one Princeton student. “I usually take a lot of notes on the books/articles that I am planning to cite. And when writing, I just go back and forth.”
Students whose curriculum requires them to organize information culled from many different sources are particularly concerned with being able to navigate multiple documents at once, said Michael Koenig, director of operations at Virginia’s Darden School of Business, which also ran a Kindle DX pilot program last fall. Students at Darden typically have to keep track of 125 different business cases in their first quarter alone, Koenig said, and the Kindle was not always up to the task.
“At the point where you need to highlight and notate in a fairly high-paced classroom — to be able to move back and forth between business cases, class readings, your own notations, your own highlights, your own analysis — It’s just not as flexible or nimble as having your paper notes or your laptop right there,” he said, adding that the Kindle was “not quite ready for prime time.”
Students at Case Western, in addition to grumbling about “implementation of underlining, annotation, and bookmarking,” found it disorienting that the Kindle did not mark texts by page numbers in the same way as their bound counterparts, which made it difficult for them to follow along in class when professors kept instructing students to turn to a particular page. Their most frequent complaint, according to a summary provided to Inside Higher Ed, was that they could not “flip” randomly through pages of a text — echoing the comments of some Princeton students who missed the ability to easily “skim” texts.
Of course, there were students on each campus who took to the Kindle more strongly than others. Lev Gonick, the chief information officer at Case Western Reserve, referred to these more enthusiastic adopters as “power users,” and said they actually liked the annotation tools on the Kindle DX. Likewise, Koenig said some Darden students were savvy enough to successfully juggle the trappings of business school on their e-readers. “We had some of our tech-aggressive M.B.A.’s use it in the classroom successfully, and some even liked it for technical classes,” he said.
But those students only comprised the top 15 percent or so of the Darden sample; most students fell in the next tier of users, who were not quite as comfortable navigating the device. That is to say, even if the device was “ready for prime time” after all, the vast majority of students were not keen to use it.
Koenig did note that the very aspect of the Kindle that at times made it inferior to a series of texts spread out on a desk proved advantageous in other contexts — such as traveling. While keeping track of hundreds of texts, he explained, business students do a lot of traveling for internship and job interviews. Thus, being able to fit the equivalent of reams upon reams of study materials on a 10-ounce gadget is a boon for the scholar-on-the-go. “If I’m taking off Wednesday for Thursday and Friday interviews, I don’t need to go through four class binders on the plane in order to not fall behind,” he said.
The Princeton researchers also pointed out the green angle: Students who used the Kindle for academic purposes printed out half as many assignments as those who didn’t.
But generally, students were more apt to use their Kindles for recreational reading — for which they don’t have to worry about annotation — while sticking to dead-tree texts for schoolwork. Whereas 75 percent of Darden students said they would not recommend the Kindle for other aspiring M.B.A.’s, about 90 percent said they would recommend it to family and friends for casual reading. “So they’re confirming for Amazon what Amazon already knew,” Koenig said, “which is that they’ve created a very good consumer product.” Scholarly aid, not so much.
Gonick, of Case Western Reserve, remained optimistic about the prospects of the e-reader in higher education.
“Asking real students about their experiences with a first generation e-reader reminds me of my first Kaypro in 1983. I could imagine its transformational capabilities, I just couldn't experience it myself in the first generation product,” Gonick wrote in an e-mail.
“Next generation smartpads [sic], including the iPad and the Edge from Entourage, are true multi-functional devices that to varying degrees carry forward the strengths of the Kindle DX while adding additional features,” he said. “I believe higher education represents an important market for smartpad manufacturers because of our demographic, market size, and trend setting nature of our service lines. Stay tuned, the fun has just begun.”