E-Readers Fail At Education

Is our desire for gadgetry getting ahead of what our brains actually need?

e-reader and book


Cash-strapped students across the U.S. have watched the rise of the e-readers with anticipation. It’s understandable; these devices could ostensibly replace the expensive textbooks that many students shell out for every semester. Eventually. For now, e-readers are still supplemental devices because many of them don’t work well and, more importantly, they don’t work well with the human brain.

A recent University of Washington study interviewed 39 first-year graduate students in the university’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, which participated in a pilot study of Amazon’s Kindle DX (a large-screen e-reader). By seven months into the study, fewer than 40% of the students did their schoolwork on the Kindle. The problem: the Kindle has poor note-taking support, doesn’t allow for easy skimming, and makes it difficult for students to look up references (in comparison with computers and textbooks). As a result, some of the students interviewed kept sheets of paper with their Kindle case to take notes, and other read near computers so that they could easily look up references.

There’s another, larger problem, according to the U of W:

The digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive
mapping, in which readers used physical cues such as the location on the
page and the position in the book to go back and find a section of text
or even to help retain and recall the information they had read.

Except for the cognitive mapping issue, these are all are technical problems that could all be fixed in future Kindle upgrades. The other problem is larger: Are we getting excited about a future that our brains aren’t ready for? Could books have developed not simply because they were the available technology, but because they actually convey information to our brains in a more efficient way? If we’re pushing technologies for learning that, cognitively, make it harder to learn, we need to take a step back.

Perhaps the solution–for textbooks, at least–is to bolster conventional text and images with more interactive and multimedia content. This seems better suited to tablets like the iPad, which can hardly be classified as conventional e-readers. Inkling, a publisher-backed iPad startup, has already started doing this with interactive textbooks that include glossaries, note-taking and sharing capabilities, video, and more. But Inkling is still fairly small (it has a mere 55 available titles), and the Kindle DX’s capabilities are limited.

In the immediate future, the Luddities win. Textbooks, pens, and paper will all still play a part in higher education. That may change quickly once more schools start offering shiny new iPads to incoming students. But if people are still carrying a piece of paper with their iPad, we’ll know technology can’t solve everything.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.