Digital Education: e-readers and their impact on the North American classroom – Guest post by Brooke Folliot

With online education establishing the precedent that technology can serve as a catalyst to provide education to the masses, education administrators are starting to see the value in exploring technology as a means of enhancing the educational experience.  From online education’s humble roots grew an academic ecosystem with varied levels of education, from Project Management certification to even online graduate degrees.

Now educators from all levels of instruction are piggy-backing off this success and figuring out how to use digital devices, such as the e-reader, to make the classroom learning experience even richer and more dynamic. As e-reading devices grow in popularity, several colleges have already implemented pilot programs involving e-readers. These programs have demonstrated promise, but e-readers do come with limitations that must be addressed in order to maximize the overall positive effect that they can have on the North American classroom.

During the 2009 fall semester, Princeton University performed a pilot program testing the usefulness of e-readers in the classroom. A total of 51 students were given access to e-readers for use in three separate courses. While most students made positive remarks about their reading experience, many experienced more overall classroom difficulty, primarily due to a perceived decrease in note-taking and referencing abilities.

Through Educause Quarterly, Joan Wines and Julius Bianchi report on a similar case study performed at California Lutheran University in the 2009-2010 academic year. Forty students in two introductory English courses checked out e-readers from the university library. Each student downloaded digital versions of the assigned texts, and course materials were made available for use on the e-readers. Overall, the students involved in the pilot program demonstrated an expansion of vocabulary, a greater interest in the reading material, and better developed essays.

In both the Princeton and California Lutheran pilots, students used less paper. Digital texts already save paper and the impact becomes greater when students use e-readers for multiple texts. Additionally, paper usage is reduced even more when instructors make digital copies of the coursework available to students. This amounts to a notable environmental benefit.

The use of e-readers also provides a number of convenience benefits. As witnessed in the California Lutheran study, immediate access to a digital dictionary available on the e-reader helped some students expand their vocabulary. Moreover, some students reported that “seeing only one page of an assigned text at a time eliminated a bundle of little distractions,” allowing them to focus better on reading assignments. The built-in annotation features also made it easier for some students to keep track of notes. An article written by Scholastic notes that carrying an entire library on a single device may help reduce the amount of weight students carry in backpacks, and having immediate access to all necessary textbooks lessens the odds of students leaving vital materials behind.

Photo source: World.reader.org

In spite of the apparent advantages in current case studies, there are some limitations that must be addressed before the tool can provide the greatest possible classroom benefit. According to the Princeton report, “study and reference habits of a lifetime were challenged by device limitations.” Some students found their “ability to compare documents, or have more than one open at a time” hampered them to the point of distraction. Additionally, while some students in both studies found the available annotation and organization tools helpful, others found them lacking. In order for e-readers to better meet educational needs in the future, further improvements should be made regarding viewing options and writing tools. More educational publishers will also need to make digital versions of their textbooks available at a notably lower price in order to offset the cost of purchasing e-readers.

Studies already indicate that e-readers could have a positive effect on the North American classroom, especially in terms of student convenience and interest. Some insufficiencies still remain, but if e-reader manufacturers and textbook publishers address these issues, the benefit of e-reader use in the classroom can grow even more.

Brooke Folliot is an avid writer who writes about topics surrounding the rising emergence of online education and how it could affect the way students of the future learn, interact, and contribute to the world around them.  She holds a graduate degree in business and is currently considering further graduate work in the field of organizational behaviour.

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