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I've written several times here about the mixed reviews that college students have given to e-readers and e-books, such that it's beginning to feel very much like a non-news story when yet another study is released saying just that: students really aren't so sure that e-readers "work" for school.

But that didn't stop almost every major tech publication picking up on the story this week that a University of Washington pilot program with Kindles found that the device failed to meet students' academic needs. (And honestly, I can hardly claim the moral high ground here for not writing the news when it broke, as what stopped me from writing the story was a wicked bout of food poisoning.)

UW was one of seven universities that participated in a pilot project among graduate students to see how and if they integrated the Kindle DX into their regular reading routines. That's the key adjective that was missing emphasis in most of the news stories I read: graduate students. I'm not sure we have really devised any "reading device" that could meet the needs of grad students, that could support how they read and annotate books. And as fond as I am of those zany academics, I'm not sure it would make good business sense to develop a device for just that market (Kno what I mean?).

These are hardcore readers, hardcore highlighters. These are not undergraduate "readers." These are not leisurely readers. And like it or not, the Kindle is designed for just that leisurely purpose. Yes, sure, the Kindle lets you highlight passages. Yes, it lets you bookmark important pages. But those features, although they sound akin to what scholars do to texts, really don't come close to meeting the needs of a group that takes highlighting and bookmarking and note-taking to a whole new level. And hell, these were engineering students that were surveyed in the UW study. Imagine if they'd asked English PhD students!

Less than 40% of the grad students in the study said they were still using the Kindle by the end of the spring term of the study, ditching it because it didn't support their note-taking needs. Students who did continue to use the Kindle said they did so next to a computer, to make looking up terms easier, or with a piece of paper, for easier note-taking.

The students also said that the e-reader didn't really work for switching between reading techniques -- such as skimming an article's illustrations or references before reading a text in full. And it disrupted their "cognitive mapping," that is using the physical cues such as the location on the page or the place in the book so that they could return to find it later or recall the information.

That e-readers don't meet students needs may be seen by some as there being room for the device to innovate. But does the Kindle really want or need to do that? Or should it instead remain focused on the leisurely reader? While yes, the textbook market does seem to be going digital, I'm just not sure that that means that e-readers (or digital textbooks, for that matter) will meet the needs of graduate students anytime soon.

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Audrey Watters


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