Wednesday, April 14, 2010

E-book readers in a mobile friendly library

Alison Brock, Open University, talked about a joint project with Cranfield University to look at how e-book readers could be used in a library setting. OU have a “digi-lab” of technology such as ebook readers, even a Wii console, to help tutors explore ways of using new technology in teaching.

The aim of the project was to explore student working practice of using e-books. There was a total of 12 participants using a mixture of Sony e-readers and iPod Touch (Kindles weren't available in Europe at the time of project). Students covered a mix of levels and subjects and were given the ebook reader to use for 3 months. The project team conducted a pre-pilot survey and start-up workshops on how to download books etc. A Ning forum was also set up, for blogging, news about the project, and technical help, and end of project surveys and interviews were also held.

Less than half the participants had used e-books at all before the project, and those who had used them had only done so on PC/laptops. Participants hoped e-books would help save paper, be more portable and lightweight than books and help them find things more easily.

Sony reader strengths were that is was:
  • Good for sequential, narrative reading
  • Lightweight, portable
  • Easy on the eyes

Weaknesses:
  • Slowness of navigation
  • A bit “clicky and clunky”
  • Only does one thing, e-books only

The verdict on the iPod was that it's:
  • A “nice gadget”, it does other things
  • Portable, pocket sized
  • Page turning easy on touch screen
  • Coloured pages aided reading

Weaknesses:
  • Tricky to get content on
  • Screen size just a bit small
  • Reliant on wifi

The post pilot survey found that most participants had used the reader for more than just study, including listening to music and audio books, reading fiction and games. However, overall they found that the devices were limited in their functionality. The students said it was tricky to get content onto the devices, and use for study was difficult even for tech-savvy users: they were lukewarm about idea of borrowing e-readers from the library. Most would not consider buying the model they'd used. The main barriers (particularly for study purposes) were formatting issues (eg PDFs, diagrams, images), navigation, not being able to annotate or highlight text, and the fact they found the devices tiring to use.

The OU also found that library subscribed e-books were only licensed for PC use, not for downloading onto e-book readers. They even found that it could be impossible for libraries to buy suitable downloadable copies: in one situation, the student had to buy the book themselves and claim back the cost as the library couldn't buy it even with credit card due to the licensing issues.

Participants also complained that it was difficult to locate suitable e-book content to use, as it's available across so many places.

With text-based, sequential reading, they did see the advantages of portablility, and felt they could work more on the move and print less. The iPod was more popular than the Sony reader, but most still preferred the idea of a laptop which could do multiple things.

Conclusions of the project:
  • Ebook readers are designed for reading fiction not academic texts (may change with arrival of iPad etc)
  • They will only play a part in how people study, not replace textbooks altogether
  • Potential for loan out of pre-loaded e-book readers? Potentially, but there have been issues in US about Kindle and conflicting advice on whether loaning pre-loaded readers infringes terms of service
  • Potential role for libraries in facilitating and guiding students to e-book content, and also negotiating better licence agreements for commercial e-book content

Students' wish list for an ideal ebook reader would be
  • Screen A4-A5 size
  • Touch screen
  • Ability to highlight/make notes
  • Internet access
  • Easier to transfer content quickly direct to device
  • Lower retail price

They thought the OU could help by:
  • Loaning out e-book readers with course materials and readings pre-loaded
  • Offering help with finding appropriate e-book content
  • Having better systems for transferring existing course materials onto reader eg OU courses being turned into ePub format

So, is 2010 the year of the e-book?

Similar e-reader projects have been run at Penn State University Library, North West Missouri State University, Princeton University, and the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. However there's still some big issues. There's the more general question about how e-textbooks will be made available in terms of licensing and pricing (mobile e-readers haven't even been part of the discussion yet). Most manufacturers and content providers are still working on the one-reader, one-book model, aimed at individuals not libraries. Technology still being developed, and still dependent on proprietary formats.

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