E-textbooks flunk an early test

When it comes to buzzy new computer technologies, schools have long had a tendency to buy first and ask questions later. That seems to be the case once again with e-readers and other tablet-style computers, which many educators, all the way down to the kindergarten level, are lusting after, not least because the gadgets promise to speed the replacement of old-style printed textbooks with newfangled digital ones. In theory, the benefits of e-textbooks seem clear and compelling. They can be updated quickly with new information. They promise cost savings, at least over the long haul. They reduce paper and photocopier use. They can incorporate all manner of digital tools. And they’re lightweight, freeing students from the torso-straining load of book-filled backpacks.

But schools may want to pause before jumping on the e-textbook bandwagon. This morning, at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Vancouver, a team of researchers from the University of Washington, led by doctoral student Alex Thayer, is presenting the results of a year-long study of student reading, and the findings suggest that e-readers may be deeply flawed as replacements for traditional textbooks. Students find the devices cumbersome to use, ill-suited to their study routines, and generally underwhelming. Paper textbooks, it seems, may not be quite as obsolete as they appear.

In the fall of 2009, seven U.S. universities, including the University of Washington, launched pilot programs to evaluate how well Amazon’s Kindle DX, a large-format version of the popular e-reader, fulfills the needs of students. At the University of Washington, 39 graduate students were given Kindles, and their use of the device was monitored through diary entries and interviews. By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use it regularly, the researchers write, “some attempted to augment e-readers with paper or computers, others became less diligent about completing their reading tasks, and still others switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique.”

One of the key themes emerging from the study, as well as from earlier research into reading behavior, is that people in general and students in particular read in a variety of ways. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a text, reading without interruption. Sometimes they skim a text to get a quick sense of the content or the argument. Sometimes they search a text for a particular piece of information or a particular topic. Sometimes they skip back and forth between two or more sections of a text, making comparisons. And sometimes they take notes, make marginal annotations, or highlight passages as they read. Reading is, moreover, a deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic activity, subject to all kinds of individual quirks. Every reader is unique.

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed book provides a natural shield against distraction. Despite being low-tech – or maybe because of it – printed books and other paper documents support all sorts of reading techniques, they make it easy to shift seamlessly between those techniques, and they’re amenable to personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing discrete pages of text on a fixed screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flipping through pliant pages of fixed text. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational protocols and routines on the user, allowing certain patterns of use but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed books become more difficult with electronic books – and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.

Some of the problems the University of Washington students had with the Kindle – hard-to-read charts, lack of support for color illustrations, inability to write notes directly on the text – are fairly easy to fix. (Indeed, touchscreen tablets like the iPad, together with apps like Inkling, have already fixed some of them.) But a more fundamental problem for the students was the e-reader’s unsuitability for certain modes of reading and for shifting quickly between different modes. And because that problem is intrinsic to the nature of a screen-based reading device, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome entirely.

The researchers point out that, in addition to supporting various styles of navigation, a printed book provides many subtle cues about a book’s structure and contents. We make a “cognitive map” of a physical book as we read it:

When we read, we unconsciously note the physical location of information within a text and its spatial relationship to our location in the text as a whole … These mental images and representations do more than just help us recall where ideas are located in a given text. We use cognitive maps to retain and recall textual information more effectively, making them useful tools for students who are reading academic texts to satisfy specific goals.

E-readers “strip away some of these kinesthetic cues,” and that’s another reason why so many students ended up frustrated with the Kindle. When students “have no cognitive maps on which to rely,” the researchers write, “the process of locating information takes longer, they have less mental energy for other tasks, and their ability to maintain their desired levels of productivity suffers.” It’s certainly possible to provide on-screen tools, such as scroll bars and progress meters, that can aid in the creation of cognitive maps for e-books, but it’s unlikely that a digital book will ever provide the rich and intuitive set of physical cues that a printed book offers.

The researchers provide an illuminating case study showing how important cognitive mapping can be:

[One student] used kinesthetic cues such as folded page corners and the tangible weight of the printed book to help him locate content quickly. He told us that “after I’ve spent some time with the physical book, I know … exactly how to open it to the right page. … I kind of visually can see where I am in the book.” His physical experience with the text changed dramatically when he began using his Kindle DX: He lost these kinesthetic cues and spent much more time hunting for information than he had previously done. He stopped using the Kindle DX for his assigned academic readings because he wanted to remain as productive and efficient as he was before he received his Kindle DX.

None of this is to say that e-readers and tablets won’t find a place – an important place, probably – in schools. Students already do a great deal of reading and research on computer screens, after all, and there are many things that digital documents can do that printed pages can’t. What this study does tell us, though, is that it’s naive to assume that e-textbooks are a perfect substitute for printed textbooks. The printed page continues to be a remarkably robust reading tool, offering an array of unique advantages, and it seems to be particularly well suited to textual studies. Traditional textbooks may be heavy, but they’re heavy in a good way.

13 thoughts on “E-textbooks flunk an early test

  1. Chris

    The problem isn’t restricted to students. UK studies into the performance of examiners have shown that their memory, comprehension and evaluation suffered when working on a screen with a scanned copy of a examination paper rather than with the original script.

    See, for example, Martin Johnson, Rita Nadas, Marginalised behaviour: digital annotations, spatial encoding and the implications for reading comprehension, Learning, Media and Technology, 2009.

    As we understand more the process by which we absorb information from a text, the more physical, and less purely intellectual, it seems to become. The physical book has evolved over five hundred years to deliver an excellent flow of information into the brain, partly through our eyes, and partly through other senses such as touch. (Anne Mangen’s ‘haptic’ hypothesis). It does indeed seem that the e-reader is, as yet, a poor substitute for a dog-eared paperback.

  2. Leo

    All readers are indeed unique. For about ten years, I have been reading mostly electronic media, including academic papers. I find it much easier, because (contrary to the research) it is easier to find information! I memorize it contextually rather than spatially. That is, I memory keywords, section, and table numbers. What could be easier than pressing ctrl +F and finding all the occurrences of a specific phrase? I do not use Kindle, however, which is a bit limited to my taste. On a laptop (or a tablet PC), you can open several books at the same time and switch among them easily. You also have proper illustrations! The only problem is notes, but I do it rarely (again reading is very personal!)

  3. KiltBear

    Re: [One student] — it sounds like what you are dealing with is a 19 year old who has used paper books for 14 years vs using e-books for 2 years (if that). As much as humans create tools, the tools we use shape and change us. How quickly can you use a T-9 keyboard on a phone to send messages? A QWERTY keyboard is much more efficient. Now watch some kid send messages the same way. They FLY through the process.

    The best conclusion one might be able to draw at this point is that they are very different tools, that require different ways to adapt to them and use them. I’m 47, and the way I was brought up it was anathema to mar a book with dog-ears or writing in them (parents from the 50s ya-know?) It wasn’t until I was 35 that I learned the joy of marking a book up to one’s personal use.

    Yes, the kinesthetic cues as currently understood will be lost and replaced with something else, maybe more visual scanning a list of labeled bookmarks. I would wager that the kinesthetic cues are a broader set of things like “finger memory” (I can’t remember my password, but my fingers do). A well designed and often used piece of reading and marking software can develop the same for the user.

  4. Tony Ford

    Thankyou. Clear, concise, and I know what you mean. And Kiltbear too. With three out of four ankle-biters still at home… But I do like the idea of the tech…

    I think I am losing my attention span for things too, so it can happen to 40+. May now leave the e-readers out of the house till The Progeny move on, …

  5. Amy Love

    Somehow, we all still manage to do math without the kinesthetic cues of an abacus. I dearly love the printed word–I’m a librarian!–but I’m with KiltBear on this one. E-readers may have clunky interfaces and serious flaws, like all new gadgets, but their format is not inherently worse or less flexible than printed books. They’re just different. People who grow up with e-readers alongside or instead of paper books won’t evaluate their functionality on the basis of what paper books can do. Remember Clay Shirky’s story about a four-year-old watching a DVD? She started rooting around in the cords behind the television set, and when her dad asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m looking for the mouse.”

  6. Cfront8

    While I agree with some of your points, I think you underrate the degree to which traditional print media impose rules upon us. We just don’t see these impositions as much because they are so familiar as to seem innate to reading, rather than what we are accustomed. I watch my students navigate their textbooks with the same level of awkwardness that my more senior colleagues exhibit when they try to navigate the web. Each sees the media with which they were raised as the natural way to read, and the other as learned. To assume that one is inherently inferior, rather than just less familiar, is equally as specious as to assume that one is are superior rather than more familiar. I love books and have always surrounded myself with them. But I also love my Kindle more and more every day. (I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Shallows on it!) It takes time, lots of trial and error and even some guidance to make these transitions. Neither the table of contents nor the index was inherent to the book. They are adaptations, much like color screens, improved navigation, and e-lending. As with all transitions, we lose some and we gain some. The hope is that we ultimately have a net gain (no pun intended), and that we have the patience and persistence to adapt the media to make it better.

  7. Durell Flood


    I have been reading/watching your blog for a few months. I was referred to it by Dr. T. David Gordon in a MP3 formatted lecture he gave. I am currently working through “The Shallows” for the second time. I am slowly working through it so that I can understand it.

    Regarding the locality issues with books vs. e-text, I have noticed this with texts. I have sometimes noticed that I remember a text where it is in a book: on the right or left page, where on the page, even as far as where in the paragraph.

    In regards to e-text I do not know what to say for its locality. I find e-text somewhat disorienting in that I deal with texts in a book in relation to its previous pages, placement in the line of argument or story, etc. E-text seems to be this wierd hybrid of unwieldy scrolls (e.g. Torah scrolls, hence scrolling) and non-locality. In one of those lectures I was listening to, there was a reference to a conversation had with Dr. Billington of the Library of Congress. Billington said (if I remember the account correctly) that the codex was the most important invention because it allowed for pagination. I suppose the closest thing to a scroll that I have ever come around would be micro-film. It gives me a headache to even think of having to deal with that.

  8. Brutus.wordpress.com

    It’s been observed, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Several commentators above insist instead, “never let the university research study get in the way of one’s pet tech.” The chorus of “different isn’t worse (or better)” strikes me as the imposition of empty value relativism on conclusions readers don’t want to accept. Motivations for that refusal don’t interest me.

    The opening line caught my attention, namely, that educators in particular are prone to leap before they look. Too true. Yet new, purportedly improved gadgetry has rarely led to improved learning, and experimental methodologies fare also as badly. Sure, new and shiny is often foolishly seductive, but it’s also many times worse that old and established. Unlike many, I prefer coherence, stability, and continuity. What’s the point of learning a new way of reading? Is it just to accommodate sales of e-readers?

  9. Adam Shields

    When I was a high school student I always read the same bible and knew it fairly well. When I went to college I made a conscious decision to start reading different translations of the bible. In the short term, the biggest problem with the lost of the visual memory when looking for a passage. I was still using a book, and other than the bible there are very few books that have as many version, editions and size differences. Some people I know actually re-bind their bible so that they do not lose their notes (and visual memory). Others have a dozen editions and just pick one up. Personally I stopped using paper bibles more than a dozen years ago because the search and other benefits of electronic versions.

    I think it is just more complicated than you are allowing. There is a wide range of temperaments, learning styles, and uses that people have with books (whether paper or ebook).

    I read an ebook version of one of those little gift books of wisdom the other day and it was crap. The pictures didn’t translate well, the white space was distracting, everything about it was wrong because the book was put together for design as much as the physical words. Other books are much less oriented that way.

  10. Dicklacara

    @Brutus said:

    ” Yet new, purportedly improved gadgetry has rarely led to improved learning, and experimental methodologies fare also as badly. Sure, new and shiny is often foolishly seductive, but it’s also many times worse that old and established. ”

    Mmm… I wonder how the Gutenberg Press was received by the contemporary establishment.

  11. Kent_ong

    Hi Nicolas,tThis is first time I read your post. I am still waiting for your book “The Shallow” coming from UK. A lot Malaysians still prefer physical books rather than eBook included myself. As you said, there are a lot of benefits reading physical books rather than eBook, at least my eyes won’t be pain so fast. Hope you can post more articles related to how internet change our mindset because my website is blogging about human online behaviours. Thanks Nicholas. :)

  12. Designcomment.blogspot.com


    You may be interested to read some of the thoughts of an economics professor here in Ireland, Steven Kinsella, who made some observations on how to organisation and use digital presentation methods to teach economics in this century. You can read one of his blog entries here:


    I quote:

    “Think what sitting there, watching slide after slide after slide, does to the learner. They are passive, bored, and complex information is chopped up and fed to them relentlessly over 2 hours. Much better to engage them, to ask them questions, ask them to participate, perhaps even make something. No slideware program can help do that. That’s what I want my lectures to be. PowerPoint is lazy, and helps lazy lecturers do a poor job. It forces poor lecturers into ‘slide readers’, and the best lecturers into a boring, linear format, that they escape from, as Eugene shows.”

  13. Mattsuttonfoto

    Thank you Nicolas. I am an undergraduate student. I haven’t studied nor done academic essays in a very long time. Your article has helped me. I have tried the iPad or eBook technology and find in unsatisfactory. There is noting quite like having a real book in front of me. I am using software on a iBook to record notes that are “tagged” for easy retrieval later at essay time. Like you say, maybe a combination of a real book and a tablet form of PC is the answer for some. Regards. Matt

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