Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Book is dead; long live the Book.

Nineteen years ago I attended a workshop organised by the British Council in Manchester. A facilitator at the workshop predicted the death of the “book” before the turn of the next century. Two decades on and the “book” still lives, albeit wearing different cloaks, one of which is the “e-cloak”. There is no doubt that e-books, i.e. digital versions of text-based materials, have captured the imagination of our society and impacted on the relationship between library users and information service providers.

Opinions are divided over the usefulness and suitability of e-book readers for teaching and learning. Apologists argue that these portable devices are well placed to offer alternative and “cheaper” access to electronic resources, particularly in distance and work-based learning settings. This could be especially when one considers the £4 billion cut to the higher education budget announced in the 2010 spending review.

Critics on the other hand point to the many issues posed by using e-book readers in teaching and learning such as digital rights management; security and fragility of the devices; cost of equipment, software updates, battery life and limited availability of quality textbooks in e-book format. For these critics, the above challenges have profound limitations on the effective and efficient use of e-book readers for academic purposes. (See for example ?)

Guided by the above debate, and in order to gain further insight into the appropriateness and suitability of e-book readers for academic purposes, the Academic Services team mounted an exhibition which showcased e-book readers to academic staff as part of the “Building Capacity” event organised by the E-services and Communication Team on 6 December 2010. We also wanted staff to tell us how e-book readers could improve the quality of teaching and learning in Aberystwyth University and what the potential drawbacks were. Here is a selection of the comments we received:

  • “I could use it for distributing assignments as blackboard but directly to readers”.
  • “It could serve for some purpose as a portable device than a laptop and with longer battery life”.
  • “I could use it on a plane or the train”.
  • “It will reduce the load in my bag”.
And this is what staff found limiting:

  • “I am not convinced that e-book readers can, [improve the quality of teaching and learning] but e-books can”
  • “Having a single purpose device to me is somewhat limiting”
  • “Limited screen size, lack of colour and keyboard [pose a] limitation”.
  • “I will rather like to see more e-book materials or electronic materials being made available… as an academic it is important to be able to interact e.g. annotate, clip, bookmark and highlight”.
Clearly the suitability of e-book readers in a mobile learning context is acknowledged by some academics. In this regard e-book readers are seen as having the potential to enhance the learner experience, widen access to education and promote lifelong learning. Based on the above findings, the major barrier to deploying e-book readers in a teaching and learning environment appear to be technical. To make e-book readers attractive to teaching and learning our discourse must shift from “reading devices” to “learning devices”. The affordances of e-book readers must be at the heart of our debate.

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