Campus Technology

E-Book Readers Bomb on College Campuses


(Corrects Amazon statement in 7th paragraph.)

Hopes were high last fall when the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle DX was distributed to a group of students at seven universities around the country in a classroom pilot program for the electronic reader. With students able to download class materials and textbooks easily onto the slender 10.2-ounce device, many thought the era of carrying heavy textbooks would soon be over. Just a few months later, their hopes were dashed, as students reported that the Kindle was a poor replacement for a textbook, hard to use in the classroom, and difficult to navigate.

"It's an amazing device for recreational reading, but it's not quite ready for prime time in higher education," says Daniel Turner, associate dean of the masters and executive education programs at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business (Foster Full-Time MBA Profile), one of the schools that participated in the pilot.

It appears unlikely that the Amazon Kindle DX will be making a comeback in most college and graduate school classrooms this fall. Over the past few months, results from the pilot programs have trickled in, with most schools reporting that students were dissatisfied with the device as a classroom tool, and that many students had abandoned the Kindle just a few weeks into the experiment. At some schools, more than half the students surveyed said they wouldn't recommend the e-reader to friends for use in the classroom, citing the device's lack of flexibility, slow navigation within readings, and an inadequate file management system. Another problem that loomed over the pilot was the device's inaccessibility to the blind and the visually impaired, due to a complicated menu navigation screen that makes it hard to access the read-aloud feature. Until Amazon addresses these problems, the Kindle is unlikely to be embraced by most of the higher education community, says Tracy Gray, managing director of the National Center for Technology Innovation in Washington.

"This is really emerging technology, and probably in two to three years, these problems will be solved," says Gray. "But right now, makers of e-readers are really just working out the devil in the details."

Not for Case Studies

Of the seven schools that participated in the Kindle pilot, two were business schools, Foster and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile). Darden worked closely with Amazon to convert many of the case studies it uses in first-year classes to the Kindle format and selected 62 students and 10 faculty for the pilot, says Michael Koenig, Darden's director of MBA operations. While students liked some of the Kindle's features, such as the big screen and the capacity of the digital library to store hundreds of case studies, most students were unhappy overall with the user experience, Koenig says. Although the device allows students to highlight text and make notes, many complained it was difficult to use these features. Perhaps the most pressing problem, he says, was the lack of a folder management structure, which made it hard for students to keep track of the dozens of business cases they needed for class. Concludes Koenig: "When you got to the technical classes, the Kindle just could not keep up."

By the second quarter, most students had abandoned their Kindles, choosing instead to read case studies on their laptop or on paper, Koenig says. In a midterm survey, in which students were asked if they would recommend the Kindle to their fellow students, 86 percent said they wouldn't, while only 12 percent said they would advise friends to use it. Students did like using it for personal reading, however, with 96 percent of the class saying they would recommend it to friends for that purpose.

The pilot program helped Amazon gauge how the Kindle can be a more useful classroom tool, says Stephanie Mantello, a spokeswoman for Amazon. The latest software upgrade for the Kindle includes two larger font sizes, she said. The company is working on an audible menu system to help blind and vision-impaired users navigate, she added. "We will always look at ways of improving the student experience on Kindle," Mantello wrote in an email. "One day students could read all their schoolbooks on Kindle."

Joe Chard, 29, a self-described "tech geek," was itching to use an e-reader in the classroom when he arrived on Darden's campus last fall as a first-year MBA student. When he learned his MBA class section has been selected for the Kindle pilot, he couldn't believe his luck. Says Chard: "I felt like I won the lottery." But he soon realized that the Kindle would not be the ideal tool for the classroom and quickly became frustrated by its slow response time. By the time November rolled around, he had put the device aside in favor of reading class materials in PDF form on his laptop.

"It just didn't have the features or the sort of user friendliness to make it practical, let alone helpful," says Chard, now a second-year student.

"A Device That Doesn't Exist Yet"

Students in the Technology Management MBA program at the University of Washington's Foster School were similarly let down by their experience with the Kindle pilots, says Daniel Turner, associate dean of the school's masters and executive education programs. The school put the textbooks students needed for class on the Kindle but, unlike Darden, chose not to put case studies on the device. The pilot began in January, and students in the program were given the option of using the Kindle for class; 61 of the 77 students, or about 79 percent, decided to participate in the pilot for the first quarter. By the time the Spring quarter came around, only 17 of the original 61 in the pilot chose to continue to use it. Like the Darden students, Foster students had similar complaints about navigation and note-taking, as well as frustrations about the way graphics, images, and formulas were rendered on the device.

"There were some high hopes. It's easy to say they were not fully met," he says. "I think what students are calling for is a device that doesn't exist just yet."

For now at least, the future of e-readers on college campuses looks cloudy. The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind filed a lawsuit last year against Arizona State University for using the Kindle to distribute electronic textbooks to students, stating the device could not be used by blind students. The lawsuit has since been settled, but Arizona State and several of the other universities in the pilot, including Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Oregon's Reed College, and Pace University in New York, have agreed not to use the Kindle or any other e-reader in classes unless the device is fully accessible to the blind or visually impaired. Some universities, such as Wayne State University in Detroit, have passed resolutions stating that the school will not do any business with Amazon unless or until the Kindle is created in a manner that allows for an alternative format for the blind and visually impaired. Other schools, such as Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have passed similar resolutions.

The iPad Advantage

Many universities see the Apple (AAPL) iPad as the next frontier for e-reading devices in the classroom. "The iPads are coming," says Darden's Koenig, who says he expects to see many students toting their iPads to class next fall. Some business schools are already starting to use the iPad in the classroom. IMD business school in Switzerland announced this week that it has already started using the iPad in the classroom. The school piloted the iPad in an executive education program with Allianz Global Investors at the beginning of May, and feedback from the faculty, staff and students was "overwhelmingly postive," says IMD Professor Bettina Buchel. "I think this device will revolutionize executive education."

Other schools will likely follow suit, especially as the iPad becomes more prevalent on campus next year after more students pick them up over the summer, says Gray, of the National Center for Technology Innovation.

"I would hate to be the person at Kindle watching the explosion of the iPad," Gray says. "I think the Kindle is going to have to pedal pretty quickly to find itself competitive with the iPad. It's a game changer."

Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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