Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thoughts on Readers, eReaders, studying, and content

I'm not a big reader, but am a huge browser of content. I'm not sure if it's my ADD or just the pace of information coming across the threshold of my life that causes this, but it's the way things are. I've been hanging around "book people" and software engineers a lot for most of this century, and have noticed a few things about books, learning, and software design. I also have listened to a lot of user stories (read: complaints) on interacting with eBook software and how it could be improved. While I'm excited that various companies have decided to take on the task of bringing more content to market in electronic formats, I think the current obsession with an eReader device is a little off the mark. Let me explain.

First, readers and students have vastly different methods of accessing content. Readers chew through it from upper left to lower right, rarely back-tracking or caring where they are within the structure of the book. It's all about the story. News readers are even less focused: they're all about the article. Students, however, range all over a book. They start a section, flip over to the index to find another reference to a term they are unfamiliar with, mark a sentence, go back to cross reference with a previous highlight, skip ahead because of the lecture order their professor has chosen - in short, they rarely, if ever, attack a book from upper left to lower right, line by line the way a mere reader does. That is why most current eReaders fail them.

Second, Students don't want another device. They want something that works with the two devices they already carry: their laptop and their phone. They want the most powerful yet smallest device that will let them surf, Facebook, email, Twitter, shop, check horoscopes, listen to music, and watch video without thinking about the technology. To anyone over 35, this is a nerd. To folks under 25, this is just using the stuff you're used to using. Sure, some of them will pick up a Kindle, and the really voracious readers in the demographic will like it and maybe buy it, but the majority will see the $300+ price tag and say "No, thank you." (Actually, it will be much more off-color, but allow me the license.)

It's also high time we move beyond just porting the page of a book over to the screen. Sure, reading is great and all that, but since we can insert graphics or video or animations or whatever into the eBook to enhance understanding of the material, why handcuff ourselves to slavishly copying the dead tree format? There are companies doing more with ebooks than putting the page on a screen. One of the problems in adoption is that professors are usually reluctant to adopt the new model. ("I've given them page numbers for years. Why should I give them a link?"). Having to re-organize their notes and classroom materials to accommodate new scholarship and new sources is something many tenured profs don't want to do. They'll never admit it (and there are many who aren't this way), but there are a good percentage that have this mindset. It will take a generation for this population to age out of the system.

Students also complicate the issue by not being willing to pay for actual scholarship. If you're reading a report of a test that cost millions of dollars, or watching a video that is professionally produced and edited, or viewing an animation that clearly explains a complicated process, you're going to have to front some coin. Students will pay $15 to see "Star Trek" at the IMAX for 2 hours, but to delve into something that will affect their personal and professional lives for years into the future, they're fine with half-baked, mangled stories from various web sources with no more professional credentials than the guy playing guitar for spare change on the street, or a page that has so much advertising and collusion with the product sponsor as to remove all credibility.

Publishers, for their part, have multi-layered sales and authoring systems that sometimes hinder actual scholarship and drive up costs. They want to pay a salesperson, an editor, an agent, and three executives the same amount per copy distributed that they want to pay the researcher who actually knows the material and spends the time preparing it for students to consume. Would you want to write something, knowing that everyone up the chain and back down was going to pinch off a little of your pay for relatively little value added?

I don't care to use any special-purpose device, if there are multi-use devices that can easily perform the same function well. My laptop (my only computer) is much more feature-rich than any eBook device, no matter how thin and easy to use. My iPhone is always in my pocket, and reading on it is quick and efficient for short sessions. I have read many books over the years on Palm devices that had much worse screens than the iPhone. For textbooks, not being able to highlight, search, link to outside materials, and collaborate with colleagues around the content hampers learning. There are eBook readers for my laptop that allow me to do this. I feel certain there will soon be applications for the iPhone (and other smartphones) that will provide these scholarly functions as well. I don't need to pay $300-$500 more to add another device to my bag.

(Disclaimer: I do not speak for any company in any way. These thoughts are based solely on my personal anecdotal experience. I have been introducing eBook technology to students and professors for the last 8 years, as well as working with many publishers, training and supporting their use of eBooks.)


David Warlick said...

An interesting comment about students willingness to use what they can fit into the two devices that they already carry around with them. I think that there is a lot of truth to that, though I suspect that laptops and mobile phones will continue to evolves, as per our many face-to-face conversations...

-- dave --

Allison said...

Intriguing thoughts Smythe. I think that the iPad (and devices to follow) do start to fit in because of exactly what you say - the ability to search, highlight and access external resources. I saw the Kno Tablet demoed at All Things D and it tried to address the things you say students need, but it was so very wrong. Two FOURTEEN INCH displays (both about .75" thick), weighed 5 pounds and would cost "under $1000). Oh, and no 3G access, only wifi. They emphasized that it was for reading textbooks that require the giant displays, but I think they were way off base, even though they've signed on a bunch of publishers.

I saw a pitch on open source textbooks at the SCALE conference last year (southern cal linux expo) which really intrigued me. There are a bunch of projects going on - I think this was the one I saw pitched: http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/ They're vetted books written by professors from real universities (the pitch mentioned a guy from Stanford as an example). Imagine getting an open source textbook, put it on your iPad, have video of a beating heart as it rotates in 3 dimensions, or springs and levers moving for a mechanics class...makes me really excited about what's coming.

Allison Sheridan
NosillaCast Podcast at http://podfeet.com
A technology geek podcast with an EVER so slight Macintosh bias!
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from dusty archives - Largo Lodge

[ed. This piece was written some time ago, but I found it recently while moving hard drives on a computer. I thought some folks may find it ...