Are Students Ready for Ereaders?


It’s August, which for millions of students and parents means one thing: back to school. This has not gone unnoticed by consumer-electronics companies, who want to capitalize on this market by harping on Americans’ desire to stay connected with the latest and greatest devices. One connected device, however, may not be quite school-ready.
At first glance an ereading device seems perfectly suited for education. Devices such as Barnes & Noble’s,, NOOK have built-in connectivity that delivers material in seconds, providing students with access on the go. Ereaders can also store thousands of texts, significantly lightening the load a student needs to carry to and from class.

So far, however, there have been some bumps in the road. For instance, Amazon,, manufacturer of the Kindle, launched a model “optimized” for education in May 2009, but did not receive the warm welcome it expected. Student trials at five universities proved ereaders have a lot to prove before they become staples in the classroom.

Amazon marketed the original DX model as offering an enhanced reading experience for graphic-rich textbooks. It offered a larger screen, and the ability to highlight, take notes, and look up words thanks to its built-in dictionary. DX could carry up to 3,500 books, download items in 60 seconds, and weighed much less than a single textbook.

In the fall of 2009, hundreds of students at Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College, and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia put Amazon’s claims to the test.

Results of the pilot were clear cut. Of the Princeton students given Kindles for a semester, 94% used less paper, but many did not feel the ereaders enhanced the classroom experience—mostly due to “device limitations.” While students praised the device’s portability, battery life, and e-Ink technology, limiting factors included annotation, pagination, and navigation.

Results at Portland’s Reed College were similar. Students praised the compact form factor, legibility and durability of the screen, battery life, and paper-saving potential. More troublesome, however, was their feedback regarding the ease of navigating from one point in a text to another, and between multiple texts.

Reed students reported these limitations led to in-class discussions that were less supported by texts and therefore more superficial. In fact, the college reported many students gave up using the Kindle after a few months and returned to paper texts.

In a study conducted by The Book Industry Study Group,, despite being early adopters of other technologies, such as smartphones, nearly 75% of college students said they preferred to use printed textbooks over etextbooks. This may not be true for long, though. Pearson Foundation,, came out with research this spring that suggests students who own a tablet device are much more likely to favor the use of digital textbooks than their non-tablet-owning counterparts.

As consumers welcome connected devices into their homes, they will come to expect technology to be part of every aspect of their lives. Perhaps the 2009 Kindle DX pilot was a few years ahead of the curve. Nevertheless, the experiment is somewhat of a reality check. Just because devices begin gathering steam in the consumer-electronics space doesn’t mean they are ubiquitously accepted—at least not yet.

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