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Kindle 2: Product Review

Posted on : 18-06-2009 | By : Dean | In : Gadgets, Tech and Teaching, Tech Reviews

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I own both the Kindle 1 and now the Kindle 2, and I was impressed with both from the moment that I purchased them. The convenience of having an entire library of books in a device that weighs less than a pound was fantastic for both my job as a teacher (less lugging around a bag full of books) and my appetite for books as a pleasure reader (the ease with which I can switch between three or four books on the fly is nice!). And each of the devices delivered what they advertised. However, I find myself torn between the early features of the device that I find fantastic, personally and sub-par professionally. As such, I find myself reviewing the device from two very different perspectives. And while I have to grant that neither the Kindle 1 or 2 were marketed as educators’ tools, discussing what would make them so is constructive in light of the announcement of the Kindle DX, which is more like a larger clone of the first two devices (with a few software differences) than a real breakthrough in the e-reader’s functionality in the classroom.

Kindle and Books

When you purchase a Kindle 2, you get exactly what you pay for, and you pay quite a bit ($349.00). However, that price includes the “whispernet” 3G wireless delivery system and limited internet access to pages like wikipedia. It also allows for free delivery of major newspapers, journals and even blogs. The publications themselves come at a cost (even blogs, which doesn’t make much sense since they are free on any computer), but the delivery system comes without a charge. this might seem like a small thing, but in fact, in an age where the model is to make the hardware cheap and lock users into long-term subscriptions (think cell phones and net books) the flat price is somewhat offset by what could be far more expensive under a subscription model.

Some of the features are simply great for the every day reader, but each of them need improvements to be viable and I would argue potentially essential classroom tools.

The Kindle Dictionary

Kindle Dictionary

What’s Lit: The built in dictionary is a wonderful tool, and it’s an upgrade from the Kindle 1, where the reader was forced to highlight and entire line and then scroll through the available words in that line to find the one he or she wanted defined before clicking through to the “full definition” page. The Kindle 2 improved this feature with a movable cursor that can be positioned in front of any word that the reader wants defined.

What’s Spotty: The cursor is a bit slow. It doesn’t respond well to the controller, especially in getting it to appear on the page initially.

Homework for the Classroom: Pronunciation would be a great add to the dictionary feature. TheFreeDictionary.com does a great job with pronunciation audibly, and with the success of text-to-speech on the Kindle, it seems like a no-brainer. Adding names would be a big plus. Then even freshman would be able to properly pronounce “Michel Foucault.” A thesaurus should also be added, since the potential for e-readers should stretch beyond mere reading in the classroom, to editing, note taking, and collaborating on documents.


Kindle Annotations

What’s Lit: It’s nice to be able to add a short note to a highlighted passage, and the ability to call it up instantly from a list of annotations is a nice touch, too. The full keyboard is very nice, and the fact that it is button driven, rather than touch screen, is practical. It’s a nice little feature for the average reader or someone who participates in book clubs.

What’s Spotty: Even though the buttons are more practical than touch screen, they are a little stiff, making it difficult to type. But without a doubt this feature poses some very practical problems for anyone who wants to actually discuss a book with a non-kindle reader. The lack of page numbers or some feature by which the Kindle user can guide the non-kindle reader to a passage is a serious problem. In fact, this problem renders most of the functionality useless, unless a Kindle owner who wants to find the print page numbers by purchasing a print edition (which beg the question, why get a Kindle, then?) or convince others to drop the $349 on their own Kindle (not very reasonable).

Homework for the Classroom: The annotation feature needs some kind of cross-reference to print edition page numbers in order for it to have any effective value in the classroom. Not all students will have Kindles (nor will all teachers, many of whom are more resistant to change than students), and no university will enact policies that implicitly exclude students. Some might argue that textbooks are a cost and the cheaper price of e-books will pay for the Kindle by the end of the student’s college career, but that argument assumes entire universities will require devices for all students. As member of several committees myself, I know just how impossible it would be to pass such a policy. I posted this concern on the amazon forums and was told by another Kindle owner (obviously not a teacher who has to deal with actual class time) that a teacher could get a student “close enough” to a desired passage. It’s hard enough to get 40 students on the same line when they have the page, let alone telling them to look “around chapter 7.” And I also sent an email regarding this feature to amazon support. My reply was a form letter with changes that included misspellings and grammar issues.

And it’s not only the pagination issue that will make or break this feature in the classroom. It’s going to be about the software, web access, and applications. One of the main concerns from students trying an e-reader (Sony’s equivalent) in a recent study at Northwest Missouri State University was the trouble students encountered with note taking. That’s because there are no real applications that are centered on the college student who is required to quickly and effectively tag, clip, annotate and cross reference material that is being discussed on in real time with the text itself. Some of the clipping, bulleting, numbering, and tagging features offered in Microsoft One Note would be very nice additions to the Kindle interface and students who are required to collaborate would benefit from some of the features that Google is promising with wave. In addition texting and other communications features would help in collaborative work between teachers lecturing and their attending students. And embedding things into texts would be great. Yes, it sounds a lot like a blog or any number of the other current web interfaces, but these things are what students know already. Finally, opening the Kindle or any e-reader to user application development is going to be crucial to capture market share. Put simply, different disciplines within the university have different needs when it comes to the applications that are used. Chemistry students need access to formulas, atomic weights and other such information that the English student doesn’t require. Applications and plugins will be required to address these needs.


Kindle Font Size and Text to Speech

What’s Lit: This is one of the features that has the Kindle in front of the competition. Like most potential buyers, I was wary of the mechanical voice and whether I would be able to stand it for more than a minute or two. But it’s really not bad. And not a single person that I have let listen to it has been put off by it.

What’s Spotty: It’s a bit buggy. It mispronounces when the context is unclear (it reads the word wind in “the wind blew” and “I had to wind the old clock” the same way), and it sometimes reads the source code or the css formatting before a paragraph. But these are minor annoyances. The real troubling news is that amazon has started to disable text-to-speech on many of it’s books remotely because of publisher complaints. A good article on the potential loss of text-to-speech on the Kindle can be found at Boing Boing.

Homework for the Classroom: This feature needs to remain a part of the Kindle, and it should be a feature on all readers, not only because there is nothing illegal about text-to-speech, but because it is built-in feature that has the potential to help students with visual impairments in addition to those who want to study during their commute.

In Sum

There’s little doubt that e-readers will be used in the classroom, and amazon has a large market share already with the Kindle. However, they shouldn’t assume that because they are the first to arrive they will hold that market share. I’ll be testing the Kindle during the Fall 2009 semester, but I anticipate many problems with it, even though I think the device is great for my own day-to-day use and show it off whenever I can. And amazon has not been very receptive to the feedback from educators and those with legitimate questions about their device. The author of the article in The Chronicle linked above wrote that the choice their school made with regard to the Sony brand had less to do with the features of the device than the fact that amazon wasn’t very receptive to their queries about using the Kindle.

E-Readers and Universities

Posted on : 16-06-2009 | By : Dean | In : Tech and Teaching


6 Lessons One Campus Learned About E-Textbooks


Maryville, Mo.

Northwest Missouri State University nearly became the first public university to deliver all of its textbooks electronically. Last year the institution’s tech-happy president, Dean L. Hubbard, bought a Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reading device, and liked it so much that he wanted to give every incoming student one. The university already runs an unusual textbook-rental program that buys thousands of printed books for students who pay a flat, per-credit fee. Mr. Hubbard saw in the gadget a way to drastically cut the rental program’s annual $800,000 price tag, since e-books generally cost half the price of printed textbooks.

Then the university ran a pilot study with the Sony Reader, a device much like the Kindle (Sony was more responsive to the university’s calls than Amazon was). University officials learned some sobering lessons about electronic books. Students who got the machines quickly asked for their printed books back because it was so awkward to navigate inside the e-books (though a newer version of the device works more gracefully).

  • Excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Full article available here

The study at NW Missouri is an interesting one. However, the impact that these technologies will have on higher education is still in the development stage. And if cell phones and net books are any indication of the way that students will use these devices, the less-than-positive results of the study discussed above aren’t a very good measure of the place e-readers and digital texts will occupy in the classroom. There are several factors that haven’t been taken into consideration in the study, and these factors will weigh heavily on just how dependent students will become on these devices.

  1. The Development Stage.  The Kindle was the first read e-reader, and amazon’s target audience for the device wasn’t poor students. That was clear by the $349.00 price point and by almost all of the features. As an owner of both the first and second generation Kindle, I find myself trying (without much success) to come up with ways to integrate the device into the classroom. I do plan on using it for the fall 2009 semester and will be documenting the success I have in addition to a review of the device, but I can clearly see already that there will be some serious challenges that stem from the design, both hardware and software. The lack of pagination and the limited functionality with regard to notes and annotations are two of the major ones. The Kindle was created for the wealthy traveler and the lover of novels. It wasn’t created with the business person in mind (it doesn’t do well with formatting any sort of spreadsheet or chart), the poetry lover (again, formatting), the magazine lover (pictures are a problem), and least of all, the student. I don’t own the Sony reader, but I have read about it, and their focus is more mainstream, too.
  2. The Major Players. Right now there are only two: amazon and Sony. There are others in the works, but with such limited choice, there isn’t a lot to choose from. Plastic Logic has something in the works, but it hasn’t hit yet and the preview that I saw of the touch screen interface on this device wasn’t very promising. There are others working on devices, but their progress is much slower than the mobile phone and net book development.
  3. The Learning Curve. Probably the biggest hurdle on the students’ side of things will be how much they have to learn with regard to using the new device. And like any tech product user, students are and will be acutely aware and highly critical of just what these readers can’t do before they start to talk about what they can do. And who can blame them, when they are forking out 300-500 dollars for the device alone (never mind the books).
  4. Software, Software, Software. There’s very little out there right now that will work well for these devices. Topping the current list, though,  is the Text-to-Speech function that Kindle offers. Having your homework read to you while you drive to class has a lot of potential, but there are already legal concerns (mainly from the audio book industry) that will probably mute this feature. Any sort of study of the e-reader at this stage can only focus on what isn’t there on the software end.

All of the above are merely a function of the fact that these devices are in their infancy, though. Surely the makers of the e-reader will follow the most lucrative model out there for future development: the cell phone. And that model has made almost everyone absolutley dependent on them. The e–reader will be no different for students. There are already signs that things will soon change in ways that make this market competitive.

  • First, the Kindle DX has been announced and will be released soon. The DX is being promoted as a device that is made specifically for textbooks. It also includes a built-in pdf reader, something that much of their academic customer base has been asking for since the first gen model. The larger screen that it features will also be a nice addition, but the functionality of the DX will still be limited.
  • We’re also waiting for some of the other major players to arrive. Google will surely put out a reader. The’re already building the library for it. And if they don’t develop the hardware themselves, they will certainly back one of the companies that they find suitable. Once that happens.
  • And once this market matures, there will be smaller, niche companies that develop specifically for the college student.
  • The article above also talks about the cumbersome note-taking features of these devices. However, software like One Note and applications like Google Wave will certainly be available on them. Both will allow students to do things that they couldn’t imagine doing on pen and paper.
  • The real trend that will move these devices into the classroom will be user-created applications. Once these devices are opened up, they will quickly be tailored not only to the university student, but to specific disciplines via application/plugin creation.
  • Finally, Kindle already offers 3G wireless, and Plastic Logic is planning on doing the same. Once the e-reader is able to effectively interface with the web, dictionaries, thesauri, and most importantly for students, send text communications, there is little doubt that every college freshman will be telling his or her parents that their class requires one, whether it’s true or not.

There is little doubt that the e-reader will replace the book, regardless of the arguments that publishers and readers make about the “joy of holding a book.”  And the early studies, especially in niche markets like textbooks, that are tending to show the limits of these devices cannot take into account the way that the full development of this technology will impact learning and culture.

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