What Role Will Traditional eReaders Play in the Future of Education?

ereaderEReaders have continually increased in popularity over the past few years, and it seems inevitable that they will play a part in transforming education in the future. But on my campus, there haven’t been many sighting of eReaders in the hands of students or faculty. No, this school that is part of one of the largest community college districts in the country rooted in the heart of the southwest just hasn’t taken to this particular technology. And this might be the case elsewhere as well. Why is that? eReaders are affordable, convenient, and more readily available. Why doesn’t every student have one? To be honest, the eReader is past its prime. It’s stuck in a tug of war between paper book and fancy tablet. We want both, but then again we don’t. Let’s take a look at the top eReaders to see why they won’t be a major part of the digital revolution that is transforming education.

The most popular eReader is the Amazon Kindle which accounts for 59% of e-readers shipped. Amazon has two versions, the more popular Kindle 3 and the large format version Kindle DX. The Kindle is a popular device because of its size, battery life, readable e-ink screen and large ebook library available via Amazon. But the Kindle is definitely not the only game in town. Barnes & Noble has three versions of the Nook, Sony has a series of eReaders, and just recently Google added to the foray the iRiver Story HD. The iRiver is the first eReader fully integrated with the open Google eBooks platform. It would take forever to compare and contrast these most popular eReaders to no avail since there are about 50 more out there to consider. So lets take a look at the common features to most and see why they might be troublesome for students in an educational environment.

Different eBooks File Formats

Let’s start with the ebooks. Every reader lets you read ebooks, but each also comes with its own digital rights management (DRM) file format. DRM encrypted eBooks are a pain, and they can be confusing. Kindle has .azw, Sony has .lrf and the Nook as epub just to mention a few. So here’s the major flaw in the eReader system. Kindle books purchased at Amazon can’t be read on other eReader devices. And ebooks bought through Barnes & Noble (BN) can only be read on the Nook eReaders. The case is the same with Sony and the others. However, both Amazon and BN distribute eReader software (apps) that make it possible to read their books in the app on phones, tablets, or laptops. So, although you are not limited to reading the ebooks only on the selected device, your ebooks purchased in separate stores still can’t commingle together on a singular device unless you know how to beat the system. Sounds covert, but it’s actually not. There are apps and programs that make it quite easy, but the average consumer isn’t aware, and thus feels he/she must choose a store or eReader and stick with that one only. Also breaking the DRM is technically against the law. This makes it difficult for students who may wish to purchase a reader for school, but not knowing what textbooks will be available for which device may discourage their use.

Let’s say that you figure out how to get the ebooks you want on the eReader you purchased. Reading for school is a lot different than reading for pleasure. Although all four major eReader brands mentioned above have adequate bookmarking and note taking features, it’s not as intuitive as it is to jot notes in the margin and highlight the text of a paper textbook.  The Sony 350 eReader comes close. You can hand-write notes directly on the screen, but you have to go through a serious of menu options to access these capabilities. You also have the option of using the touch screen to type notes on the device, but again it’s not easily accessible. And these touch screen eReaders are noted for having terrible contrast that makes for poor reading unlike the e-ink displays on the more popular eReaders. The Kindle seems to be the best for note taking. On the Kindle you just need to start typing, but the keyboard is somewhat clunky and difficult to type quickly on. BN’s solution to this problem was to create NOOK Study. “NOOK Study is a PC/Mac-based application which you must download and install in order to access and read Barnes & Noble eTextbooks on your computer, not the Nook. NOOK Study comes with a powerful set of study tools and features designed especially with students in mind” (BN.com). It’s a great tool, but it’s not for the device itself. So using the eReader in an educational environment might not be the intended plan after all.

Demonstration of Notetaking on a Kindle eReader

Tablets May Be Better Suited

Many of the features that make eReaders more applicable to educational environments are more prevalent in tablets like the iPad and the many Android tablets. But many have argued that tablets are not eReaders although you can read ebooks on them. They do so much more, and that more, whatever it may be for you or me, is what is going to change education. Not the Kindle or Nook like eReaders alone. This can be seen in the new trend of e-textbook rentals. Amazon is the only service that actually rents e-textbooks for the Kindle device. Remember they have the bigger Kindle DX designed for educational use. NookStudy and Chegg rent e-textbooks that are accessible via PC and Mac operating systems only, and Kno and Inkling rent textbooks for the iPad, not traditional eReaders. These online etextbooks come with added features that permit students to perform high speed searches and take electronic notes quickly on a computer or tablet, not on eReaders. And many will feature added functionality and interactive features that include 3D images, smart links, quizzing, sharing and sticky notes. None of this is possible on the current eReaders.


And the winner is...

Which device will win out and help lead the way to transforming education in the future? I don’t think it will be the eReader. The Kindle and Nook with their easy to read e-ink displays are great for curling up on the couch and reading the latest Tom Clancy mystery, but they will be left out of the current transformation of education. The tablet is the technology of the future for educational purposes.