E-Books Receive Mixed Reviews in the Classroom

Published on September 6, 2010

One year is a relatively short period of time but represents an eternity when evaluating the products offered in the nascent market for electronic reading devices.  One year ago, there was much excitement regarding the potential for the Kindle DX to revolutionize the market for textbooks.  The Kindle DX is a larger version of Amazon.com’s popular Kindle device which is more suitable for larger formats such as textbooks.  Several business schools aggressively rolled out materials specifically designed for the Kindle DX.  The results of the experiment are now in and according to the Financial Times, the device has received very mixed reviews.

Lack of Flexibility Cited as Main Limitation

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business converted many case studies used in first year classes and selected 62 students and 10 faculty members for a pilot program.  Although students approved of the large screen and ability to reduce the need to carry large amounts of paper, the Kindle did not offer sufficient flexibility in a classroom environment.  Difficulty annotating cases and quickly accessing different documents were cited as major limitations of the device and some students eventually abandoned the Kindle in favor of laptops or paper.  75 to 80 percent of Darden students would not recommend the Kindle DX to incoming students although 90 to 95 percent of respondents did approve of the Kindle as a general purpose personal reading device.

Will iPad Address the Flaws?

This year, the iPad is competing with the Kindle DX for market share among students and others who require a larger reading display.  The smaller Kindle is now aggressively priced at $139 for a Wi-Fi version or $189 for a 3G version.  While the iPad is a more expensive product starting at $499, it also may appeal to students who are attracted by a color display, the availability of thousands of applications, and the many entertainment options that are included with the device. (Students seeking to justify the iPad to parents will no doubt omit reference to the entertainment features of the “must have” iPad device.)

While the iPad is certain to have a major presence on college campuses this fall, it is unclear whether the limitations cited by the Darden students will be addressed.  The attraction of being able to carry large amounts of material in electronic format is the obvious benefit along with better multimedia capabilities.  However, the flexibility of paper for taking notes and quickly referencing information may still have an advantage over the iPad just as it did in comparison with the Kindle DX.

iPad As Laptop Replacement?  Seems Doubtful...

A more interesting question is whether students will be able to use the iPad as a primary computing device and replace laptop systems that have become mainstays of college campus life.  It seems highly unlikely that the iPad will replace the laptop on campus given the need to produce large amounts of written material.  iPad keyboard and docking accessories are available and could allow students to write papers using the device, but the traditional laptop’s form factor and proven capabilities are still superior.  For affluent students, the iPad is more likely to supplement the traditional laptop rather than to replace it.

A year is a very long time in the quickly changing market for tablet style devices.  The fall of 2011 will no doubt have many additional tablet choices for students including products running Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows operating systems.  Amazon will continue to move forward as a provider of purpose built reading devices rather than general purpose tablets.  The day may come when students are liberated from dragging textbooks and laptops from class to class but it does not appear that the day has arrived just yet.

Disclosure:  Long Microsoft, No Position in Apple, Google and Amazon.com

E-Books Receive Mixed Reviews in the Classroom
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