Can Kindle and Nook replace physical textbooks?

Text books have not seen any radical changes for a rather long time. While we have had Wikipedia and eBooks and lots of other very interesting developments in related fields, textbooks continue to plod along.

As Kindle and Nook and eBooks transform the book publishing industry, the natural question that comes up is – Can Kindle and Nook replace physical textbooks?

Let’s start by looking at the advantages and disadvantages eReaders have over textbooks.

Advantages of eReaders over physical textbooks

  1. Portability. eReaders are lighter and it is easier to carry a single eReader than it is to carry a whole bunch of textbooks.
  2. Cost. The cost of each digital textbook ought to be lower than that of the corresponding physical textbook. The raw material costs, printing costs, handling costs, shipping costs are all either removed or greatly reduced when we shift to digital textbooks.
  3. Low Priced eReaders. The price of eReaders has come down drastically – from $399 in 2007 to $79 today. We can expect eReader prices to go down further if eReaders are adopted on a large scale by Schools and Colleges. Note: eReaders for textbooks would require larger screens and probably be twice or thrice the price of the cheapest Kindle (which is $79).
  4. [Never going to happen category] Once school and college libraries are digitized, it will be possible to lend a copy of the same textbook to many students. Note: This depends on publishers so we can safely assume this is not going to happen. A related benefit is that we can offer as many textbooks as we want when we have digital textbooks – We aren’t restricted by the number that were shipped to us.
  5. Public Domain – Students, Professors, and Researchers can access public domain textbooks and research material easily and freely using their eReaders. Many public libraries across the world are already digitizing the public domain educational books and material they have.
  6. Readability and Larger Audience – The text is always legible and clear and the font size can be increased or decreased as required. There is also a Read To Me feature available with the Kindle. This will allow digital textbooks to cater to lots of groups that have been denied access – dyslexic children, blind readers, readers with weak eye-sight, and so on.
  7. Saving Trees – All the photocopying of books can be avoided. Not only do we avoid using trees to make textbooks, we avoid using trees to make copies of the textbook pages.
  8. Easy Reference – Dictionaries and reference materials can be loaded onto the Kindle and Nook and students can instantly access them whenever required.
  9. Internet – Students can connect to the Internet directly from their Kindle or Nook.
  10. Renting – Renting textbooks is easier with eTextbooks and eReaders. Amazon has a digital text-book rental option that enables students to save up to 80% of the cost of the physical text books. If other major publishers can also come up with such schemes, cost of buying and using a textbook over a limited time period (like one semester) can be brought down drastically.
  11. Students’ Familiarity with Technology – Students are familiar with technology and better able to adapt to a new technology. That makes it easy for them to understand and use Kindle and Nook.

Limitations of eReaders (When compared to physical textbooks)

  1. Most eReaders that are cheap are too small to be used for eTextbooks. Kindle DX has a suitable size but it’s far too expensive.
  2. Note taking, marking, underlining, etc may be possible with eReaders, but they are a lot more difficult and unwieldy with eReaders than physical textbooks.
  3. Students are not able to browse/skim through their textbooks quickly.
  4. E Ink technology can currently display only black/white/shades of grey. Back-lit LCD displays can display multimedia content and rich graphics, but it is difficult to read from them for a long time (unless you’re LCD compatible). LCD based tablets are also more expensive than entry-level E Ink based eReaders.
  5. Color eInk has been around the corner for the last 5 years. It might be just around the corner that happens to stand in a distant part of the Universe. Even when it does arrive there will be cost and usability issues for a few years.
  6. Students need to handle eReaders more carefully than they handle textbooks. Replacing broken eReaders will cost a considerable amount of money.
  7. Sharing Textbooks will be difficult as they will probably be locked down to a user account.
  8. eTextbooks have little to no resale value.
  9. Students won’t get enough exercise from carrying just eTextbooks. 😉
  10. Digital book publishers usually display books using proprietary formats and DRM. There is the very real possibility of getting locked up with a certain publisher or eTextbook store. A marriage you can’t really get out of unless you are willing to give up all your past purchases.
  11. Not all textbooks are available in digital formats and some publishers may not want to digitize their books.
  12. Actually, that’s the biggest one – Why would Publishers want to make less from eTextbooks?
  13. Lack of Specialization. It would be good to see specialized screens/devices made exclusively for the education segment by major eReader manufacturers.

There are lots of limitations including some really hard to navigate ones (Textbook Publishers). It’s hard to say which of these will be overcome,  or when/how they will be overcome.

Can Kindle and Nook replace physical textbooks?

At the moment the answer seems – No, definitely not.

We could extend that to say – Given the direction of evolution of eReaders and eBooks, it seems very unlikely that eReader makers will provide a device suitable as a Textbook Reader and it seems even more unlikely that Textbook Publishers will agree to go with eTextbooks in a form that improves the status quo for students.

Truthfully, Kindle DX was a bit of an experiment (to try to corner the textbook market without really putting in the effort to make a device optimized for students) and B&N hasn’t even tried to make a Textbook eReader. Once one or more companies actually go all-out after the eTextbook and eReader markets we’ll have a better idea. At the moment there seems little hope.

Kindle DX University trial data from UWashington

The Princeton Kindle DX trial data was released 2 days earlier and it certainly had some interesting feedback from students evaluating the Kindle DX as a textbook reader. Today the University of Washington Kindle DX trial results are out so let’s take a look.  

Kindle DX in Education – Brilliant for Books, Terrible for Textbooks

The recurring theme was that the Kindle is great for leisure reading and long-form reading and terrible for textbooks –

“Comparing it to textbooks, it kind of sucks,” CSE graduate student Ryder Ziola said … “There are a lot of things it is good at, if you are reading a novel, where you consume in a linear fashion. It’s really good at stuff [like] that, but when it comes to actual textbooks, it’s a failure.”

“It’s a fantastic personal pleasure-reading device, but textbook reading is different, ” Lazowska said. “You want to take notes, and Kindle needs some adaptation for that.”

The article basically says Kindle DX can’t replace textbooks –

Overall, the responses of CSE graduate students highlighted just how often students take for granted the layout and effectiveness of regular, physical textbooks.

Kindle DX isn’t a good textbook reader mostly because of a lack of good note-taking

The article has numerous mentions of this –

Most CSE students agreed that taking notes on the Kindle paled in comparison to the effectiveness of laptop Word documents or a basic pen and paper setup.

The Kindle has highlighting capabilities, but the keypad itself has buttons that are less than half a centimeter in diameter, making note-taking difficult and slow.

While the lack of easy note-taking was the main complaint there were also numerous other complaints.

Kindle DX in Education – The Bad

Here’s the long list of complaints –

  1. No physical clues what a book is like. 
  2. The keyboard has tiny keys and it makes note-taking slow and difficult.
  3. Can’t take notes on the side.
  4. Painful to copy files since you have to find and use the cable. 
  5. No zoom capability for PDFs.
  6. A little difficult to move forward and back across pages (think they mean you are forced to go one page at a time).
  7. Can’t do anything beyond reading.

This comment from a student reminds us that the Kindle is terrible at text input –

CSE graduate student Andrew Hunter said. “You cannot write code or papers or produce something on the Kindle. I still have to have the ability of doing these things on the computer.”

It also suggests that a Kindle with added writing functionality and a notebook feature might be a huge hit

Overall, it’s quite interesting to see the complaints and contrast them against the complaints Princeton students had.

Kindle DX in Education – The Good

 The article also lists quite a few positive comments from students, including –

“In general, the best thing about it is that it’s a lot easier to look at than a computer screen.” (CSE graduate student Adrian Sampson)

I got it for convenience,” said Andrew McKenna, a student who owns the device for pleasure reading. “The books can be downloaded in 30 seconds. You look up a book, it says if it has a Kindle edition, and you can download it to your computer, e-mail, or download it wirelessly.”

The complete list of pluses –

  1. Saves time and money since you don’t have to print pages. 
  2. Easy access to all the pages/documents.
  3. You can scan or download PDFs for the Kindle. 
  4. 60 second downloads.
  5. Very convenient. 
  6. Easy on the eyes.
  7. Portrait and Landscape modes.

It’s nice to see multiple mentions of eInk being easier to read on than a computer screen – especially given that the NY Times would have us believe there’s no difference between eInk and LCD.

Kindle DX in Education – Thoughts

There’s a lot of good feedback from the Kindle DX University Trials (for Amazon and for other eReader makers) –

  1. Make a device targeted at students and designed for them.
  2. Make a really good note-taking function when targeting students.
  3. Add in great PDF support.
  4. Stay wary of the National Federation of the Blind and be mindful of various rights groups and their concerns.   
  5. Move quickly and be prepared for and bypass the slow pace of Universities.

It’ll be interesting to see what the next few attempts to get eReaders into education will be like. It might be a dedicated eReader based on eInk with a touchscreen and much better note-taking or it might be something like the Entourage Edge which adds on a second color LCD screen. You also have the iPad and Tablets and Netbooks trying to muscle their way in.

The Entourage Edge really does look like a pretty great textbook reader at the moment. The eInk screen looks to have pretty good touch and writing support (from the videos that are out) and there’s the LCD screen for times when eInk just won’t do.

Kindle DX Study Data released by Princeton

The Daily Princetonian covers the just released data from Princeton’s Kindle DX study.

Kindle DX Study – The Good

Let’s start with a few of the good things –

… reduced the amount of paper students printed for their respective classes by nearly 50 percent …

Wilson School professor Daniel Kurtzer, who taught WWS 555A, said he found the Kindle conducive to the format of his class because it consisted of “very traditional reading.” (Class discussions were a problem though)

Survey participants cited the Kindle’s battery life, wireless connection, portability, search feature and ability to consolidate all course documents in one place as convenient features.

The article has a bunch of positives scattered throughout and they include – 

  1. It reduced paper usage by approximately 50%.  
  2. Students liked Kindle’s long battery life, wireless capability, portability, search capability, and ability to have all course documents in one place. 
  3. Ability to download notes and highlights to PC.  
  4. Lots of availability of books without having to carry a lot physically.
  5. 35% of students said they would buy a replacement eReader if their free eReader (free in return for participating in the study) broke.
  6. Professors of all 3 classes testing the Kindle said that with improvements they’d be willing to do another trial.

While there were positives listed the article mostly focuses on the negatives.

Kindle DX Study – The Bad

The Kindle DX comes under a lot of fire. The strongest negative reactions include –

“It’s not very well designed for academic use, it’s not very helpful in page-turning or note taking, and the annotation software is very poor,”

Because there are no page numbers, I also had no conception of how much reading I had to do,”

I found it disappointing for use in class because I emphasize close work with the text, and that ideally requires students to mark up the text quite a bit,” Professor Katz said. “Though it doesn’t prevent highlighting, the annotation function is difficult to use, and the keyboard is very small,” he added.

The complete list of negatives –

  1. Ill-suited for class readings. 
  2. Lack of page numbers.
  3. Difficult to highlight and annotate.
  4. Tiny keyboard.
  5. Difficult to use folder structure (think they mean lack of proper Folders feature).
  6. 65% of participants said they wouldn’t buy a replacement eReader if their free eReader broke.
  7. May be more suited for leisure reading. 

The article paints the Kindle DX as not up for the task of being a textbook reader – unfortunately there is a lot of truth to it.

One student’s assessment is, in my opinion, spot-on –

“I think the only way the Kindle can become suitable for academics is if Amazon makes a specially designed device for use in the classroom that would allow easy and seamless annotation and notetaking.

Amazon can’t expect to just increase the screen size of the Kindle 2 and add rudimentary PDF support and pass it off as a textbook reader.

Kindle DX in Education – Where do we stand now?

Amazon moved too fast with its University Trials and ran into numerous problems including the National Federation of the Blind shutting down trials in some Universities.

The main problem though is that the Kindle DX is just a large screen ebook reader. It’s not a textbook reader and the trials clearly showed that.

The upside is that Universities are now more aware of eReaders and open to improved eReaders that are actually optimized for textbooks and college education.  

In a sense Amazon did a great thing for eReaders’ future in colleges while hurting its own cause.

What are the killer features for a textbook reader?

The feedback clearly shows that the main issues with the Kindle DX during the study were –

  1. The difficulty in taking notes and making highlights.
  2. The device not being designed as a dedicated textbook reader.  

There are also some features that are borderline necessary –

  1. Color screen for textbook illustrations. 
  2. Excellent PDF support. 
  3. Page Numbers.
  4. Folders and other ways of organizing documents.
  5. Education related apps like Flash Cards and a Journal/Notebook.

It’s tough to decide whether the ideal is an eReader that almost approaches a laptop in functionality or whether the ideal is a dedicated textbook reader.

Don’t really have an answer

The textbook reader market has so many landmines it’s perhaps best left alone –

  1. Textbook publishers have way too much power. 
  2. Students are pretty demanding.
  3. Various Rights Groups (like the NFB) have their own axes to grind.
  4. Each University wants to do things at its own pace.
  5. Each University has its own expectation of what an eReader should be.

At the current moment eInk just isn’t that suited for note-taking. This might change when Mirasol, Pixel Qi and Liquavista arrive.

There probably won’t be a viable solution for reading textbooks and taking notes for at least the next 6 months. In the worst case it might take a year and a half to get a real solution.