Do students study and learn differently using e-Readers? A cross-discipline research investigation into the pedagogical implications of using e-Readers to study university level texts

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Do students study and learn differently using e-Readers? A cross-discipline research investigation into the pedagogical implications of using e-Readers to study university level texts.
Anne Campbell1, George Callaghan, David W McGarvie, Michelle Hynd

The Open University in Scotland

ABSTRACT: We present preliminary results from a pilot study which is investigating the use of e-Readers for learning by two groups of Level 1 undergraduate part-time distance students and their tutors in the UK Open University. The Kindle e-Reader was used in the study as the most accessible and common e-Reader in use in the UK. A mixed methods approach to the research includes diary studies, semi-structured interviews, focus groups and surveys. Grounded theory is used for data analysis. Key themes emerging include a distinction between 'concentrated reading' and 'active learning', and changing study habits in students, aided by the portability of the device.
In the past few years there has been a huge growth in the use of e-Readers in the UK population. The market leader, Amazon's Kindle, has vastly increased its sales worldwide (Lunden 2012b; Ramaiah, 2012) with growth of Kindle sales in the UK mirroring growth of Kindle sales elsewhere in the world (Lunden, 2012a; Anscombe, 2012). Simultaneously there has been a growing interest in mobile learning in the Higher Education (HE) sector, as evidenced by many conferences and special issues of journals on this topic (eg Open Learning: Journal of Open, Distance an e-Learning 2010, Vol 25 Issue 3; the annual IADIS Mobile Learning conference), and there is evidence that most students use technology of some sort or another for studying and preparation (Massis, 2010). Understanding how students learn using e-Readers is a relatively neglected part of this surge of interest in mobile learning, although it is likely that increasing numbers of students from HE institutions will make use of e-Readers in the future as e-learning programmes increase (PR Newswire, 2012). Although there is evidence in the literature that HE students in campus universities have been slow in the past to start using e-Readers, being discouraged by previous relatively high costs (Foasberg, 2011), a recent survey within our own institution, the UK Open University (OU), found that 50% of postgraduates own or have access to an e-Reader or tablet, and 60% of those students use the device at least once a week for studying (Sharples & Cross, 2012). Patterns of use are likely to be similar in our undergraduate population and in other distance institutions. In this context it is important to know whether e-Readers can be used successfully for studying in higher education.
e-Reader useability research
e-Readers make use of e-ink technology which allows the reading experience in many respects to be similar to reading a printed book. The text can be read in reflected light from virtually any angle; the display is stable and in high contrast (Godwin-Jones, 2007). It has also been found that the eye behaves similarly when reading e-ink and paper print (Siegenthaler et al, 2011; Kretzschmar, 2013). In fact, in some respects an e-Reader can be more legible than a book, as the reader has the ability to increase font size to suit (Siegenthaler et al, 2011).

In the existing studies of how students in the HE sector use hand-held e-Readers, several studies concentrate on the advantages and disadvantages of the functionality (Broadhurst & Watson, 2012; Richardson & Mahmood, 2012; Angeletaki, 2011); other research focuses on producing information on how to improve the devices from a design point of view (Gibson & Gibb, 2011; Lai and Chang, 2011); and a number of studies look at the use of e-Readers from a library services point of view (eg Mallett, 2010; Aaltonen, 2011; Kemp et al, 2012). Very few studies concentrate on how student learning is affected by the use of an e-Reader.

Reading practices
There is presently some controversy about the effect of modern technology on the brain’s capacity for absorbing practices, such as deep concentration on a text, sometimes called deep reading (Carr, 2010; Bilton, 2010). Recent research by Kretzschmar (2013), using comprehension probes and eye-tracking technology, concluded that there is no objective evidence of decreased comprehension when using an e-Reader compared to a traditional text (for a variety of different types of text including scientific and non-scientific texts), despite participant perceptions that electronic text was less easy to read. These authors suggest that the common perception that e-Readers are less easy to use is a cultural rather than a cognitive phenomenon. Indeed Keller et al (2012) suggested that this perception may be caused by a deep emotional connection with the printed book, particularly for those who have been avid readers in childhood.

Supporting the conclusion that comprehension is not diminished when using an e-Reader, Behler (2009) found that students felt more immersed in the text of an e-Reader compared to reading paper – although the author surmises that this may have been caused by navigation issues, which meant that students needed to concentrate and read the text more thoroughly on a first reading. In contrast to these studies, Thayer et al's (2011) research focussed on university level study using the now defunct Kindle DX e-Reader. This longitudinal study of student study habits uncovered issues such as an inability to create cognitive maps (Li et al 2013; Rose, 2011) of e-Reader texts because of a lack of spatial and kinaesthetic clues (eg page numbers, headers, physical weight of the text and other features). Thayer et al suggested that this caused students to take longer to locate material, and reduced their mental energy for other tasks, so that students were less productive when using their e-Readers compared to using printed texts.

As educators, we are particularly interested in encouraging deep reading, where students are concentrating hard, learning, and developing new knowledge by engaging with a text. In the literature this is usually thought to be the same as 'active' or 'responsive' reading (Qayyum, 2007; Thayer et al, 2011), although it could be that deep concentration on a text to follow a long a difficult argument may not actually need the markers of active reading, and should be considered as a separate practice.
Research questions
This paper presents early results from a pilot research project in the UK Open University which looks at the experience of 20 students and their four tutors who are using e-Readers for studying. Our basic research questions are fourfold: How do students read and learn using an e-Reader? Is it possible to use e-Readers for deep reading and active learning? Do e-Readers affect students' study patterns? Are e-Readers useful devices for tutors supporting learning? The basic Kindle e-Reader was chosen for this study as it is presently the most prolific e-Reader in the UK population, and because of its cost, reputation and ease of use, the one that OU students may be most likely to buy.

This research is new in several respects: at the moment little is known about how students study and learn using e-Readers; our study is cross-disciplinary, looking at how both Science and Social Science students study; we look in particular at how e-Readers can be used to support deep reading and active learning; we consider how e-Readers could help or hinder HE distance students with a wide range of ages, rather than school-leaver campus students, who have been the focus of most studies; we also look at how tutors might use e-Readers to support students.

Educational setting
The OU provides distance education for over 250,000 students worldwide, most of them from the UK and studying on a part-time basis. Student ages range from school leavers to retired, with a median age of new undergraduate students of 32. These students have busy active lives outside of their studying with most having jobs or other occupations. Scottish OU students come from all geographic areas in Scotland, with around 60% based in urban conglomerations, 25% in rural and remote areas, and the rest living in small towns. Around 7% of OU in Scotland students are disabled, and around 45% of undergraduates receive assistance with fees.

The OU operates a model of 'supported open learning'. Students receive module materials, traditionally textbooks, other multimedia content like DVDs, and online material, and are given a study timetable to work through this material. Active learning is strongly encouraged, with in-text and end-of-chapter questions, multimedia and online activities. Each student is allocated a tutor who works from home and may be geographically local to the student, although increasingly may not be, as more and more modules move to online presentation only. A single tutor has a group of 15 to 25 students and supports students through group tuition (online and/or face to face), individual tuition by phone and/or email, and correspondence tuition on student assignments, which are usually completed and marked electronically.

Within the OU there is presently an institutional drive to providing material electronically, in e-text book format, for use on mobile devices, and there may come a point in the future where traditional textbooks are no longer used in some faculties. In this context, it is important to examine the implications for student studying, to evaluate if there are significant differences in learning using e-Reader texts and traditional printed texts.

The two modules which are the focus of this research project are the Science module 'Introducing Health Sciences: A Case Study Approach', and the Social Science module 'You and Your Money: Personal Finance in Context'. Each is a first year undergraduate module worth 30 points in the UK’s Credit and Accumulation Transfer Scheme (CATS). The modules run for nine months and require around eight to nine hours of study per week. These two very different academic subject disciplines were chosen in order that any discipline differences in the way that students engaged with academic texts on an e-Reader might become apparent.

Before it commenced, the research was approved by the OU’s Student Research and Project Panel. This panel reviews research methodology and makes sure that ethical guidelines are followed.
We use a mixed methods approach to address the research questions. This involves several different data collection methods, most of them qualitative. A diary study for students and tutors over a period of about 3-4 months (late February to early June 2013) allows an ethnographic approach: students and tutors use these to describe their daily and weekly use of the Kindle in their own settings. In addition we plan to employ semi-structured interviews for students and a focus group for tutors at the end of the diary study period, which will allow deeper exploration of the research questions in the context of the completed diaries. A group interview part way through the research was undertaken with the two Science tutors, and we conducted two early student surveys to determine (1) why the students wished to be involved in this research and (2) student prior use of e-Readers as well as student perceptions of their competence in use of computer technology. Data collection for this research is still ongoing, but we present preliminary analysis and discussion below.
Student participants
22 out of the 52 students from the two modules who were invited agreed to take part in the project. Two of these subsequently withdrew for reasons unconnected with the research study. Of the 20 students presently participating, 15 are Science students and five are Social Science students. 70% are female. Ages range from 17 to 72, with a median age of 37. Only seven of the students live in urban areas, with the other 13 living in rural areas and small towns, including seven that are remote. 13 out of the 20 students are receiving financial support for their studies, and three of the students count themselves as disabled. Most of the students consider themselves to be competent users of computer technology and regularly read for both work and leisure using screens and printed text, although most had not used an e-Reader prior to this study.
Module texts were obtained in Kindle format (mobi) from the Learning and Teaching Solutions unit within the OU, as part of a wider project (OU Anywhere) to produce module texts in mobile formats. The project team preloaded these texts onto student Kindles before distribution by post. Some documentation on using the Kindle for study was produced and sent to students via their tutors.
16 students and all four tutors returned study diaries covering the period late February to late March 2013. Each diary is split into a series of practical and reflective logs. The practical log includes details such as date used, length of usage, location, type of reading and whether and how notes or highlights are made. Reflective logs focus on how the Kindle affects study patterns and includes reflections on the use of a Kindle for concentrating, learning and remembering.

116 student and 26 tutor practical logs were collected. These showed that for students, concentrated reading over a period of about one hour was the most common type of usage. The students used the Kindle both at home (67 logs) and away from home (53 logs). Table 1 indicates the type of reading and the markers of active learning use indicated in the student logs. The tutors used a mixture of skim reading, when answering student queries, and concentrated reading, when preparing to mark an assignment. Tutors mainly used the Kindle at home, in their normal working environment, but one tutor also used it whilst travelling.

Type of Reading

Took notes

(in any format)

Took notes

(using Kindle)


(using Kindle)

Concentrated (77 logs)

50 (64.93%)

5 (6.49%)

12 (15.58%)

Skim (27 logs)

6 (22.22%)

2 (7.40%)

6 (22.22%)

Both(10 logs)

8 (80%)

1 (10%)

4 (40%)

Didn’t indicate (2 logs)

1 (50%)

0 (0%)

0 (0%)

Table 1: Type of reading and markers of active learning in the student logs.

Student and tutor perceptions
Student and tutor reflective logs, and the tutor group interview transcript, were analysed using a grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). In effect this method allows themes, issues and important topics to emerge from the data through iterative reading of the texts; these topics then form the basis for subsequent analysis. Several interesting themes emerged and we discuss these in detail below.
Deep/active reading and learning
An apparent contradiction arose in the student logs, where some students reported that they found it simple to concentrate using the e-Reader. However the same students (and others) reported that when it came to studying for an assignment, a process we came to describe as active learning, they tended not to use the e-Reader. In fact when answering a question about the learning tools used while writing an assignment, the students were eloquent on the problems associated with using an e-Reader.

Comments relating to ability to concentrate whilst reading with the Kindle included:

I have found it quite easy to concentrate and learn from the Kindle just as much as from the printed text. (S3)2

I tend to lose concentration and start reading random pages of a text book, with the kindle I am much more disciplined and know to stop when my concentration is waning. (S14)

I am finding it easier to concentrate and take in the information using the kindle... (D4)

While students seemed to be able to concentrate whilst reading with a Kindle, they had more difficulty using the device for concentrated, or active, learning. Typical comments include:

The kindle is easy enough to learn from. However, I prefer using printed text for concentrated learning. (S7)

I’m enjoying reading from it, - it gives you the impression you are covering material quite quickly. I’m still not sure about the learning and remembering, - again it’s all too 'samey'. (S1)

It is more difficult to concentrate on the text on a Kindle, I am more accustomed to using printed text and therefore I associate it with studying whereas a Kindle feels more like a leisure activity. (D3)

It is not hard to concentrate on the Kindle. Indeed, one gets the impression of reading faster, - perhaps because the pages are smaller. I think… it is harder to learn and remember than from printed text, because each page is less distinctive, - they all look similar. (S1)

These extracts offer one possible explanation for the apparent contradiction around 'concentration': it might be the case that in terms of simply reading, the Kindle is similar to printed text, allowing text to be read in a concentrated fashion. However, the more active reading associated with the learning process, which Thayer et al (2011) described as 'responsive' reading, is more difficult on an e-Reader.

Thinking through how students study for an assignment offers a useful way into considering active learning, as typically students will be engaging with certain elements of the learning materials in a concentrated fashion:

The difficulty of navigating between sections on the e-Reader was highlighted by a number of students, who valued the capability of skimming associated with printed textbooks, particularly when preparing a Tutor Marked Assignment (TMA). Typical comments include:

When I read the student notes relating to part A of the TMA, I considered whether to use the Kindle or Text Books to refer back – well I considered it for about one second. The Kindle seems much too cumbersome/clunky to use to refer back to specific parts of the chapters – it seems to me that it would never be a substitute for flicking back through a text book. (D1)

I have not used the kindle this week as I have been attempting to do my TMA and find it better to sit with the course book and handwritten notes whilst working on it. The small screen was a disadvantage this week as I could not skim read over the page to find the information I was looking for. (D2)

I suppose the ultimate test would be to use nothing else but the Kindle up to the point of an exam, and I’m not sure I would feel confident enough that its sole use would not jeopardise my results! (D6)

It would appear that the active reading associated with studying for an assignment requires an overview of the subject matter and the capacity to quickly skim between sections, a process related to the 'cognitive mapping' discussed in the Introduction (Rose, 2011).

Although tutors were not using the texts for concentrated learning, two of them also expressed difficulties with cognitive mapping using the Kindle, and reverted to using their printed texts:

I did revert to my trusted course text book on a few occasions, because I had bookmarked certain sections with coloured sticky tabs, which made them easy to locate quickly! (Social Science tutor)

If I need to know something now, if I’ve got a student email or a student on the end of the phone and I want to find out, I reach for the textbook, I don’t reach for the Kindle. Because I know I can find it in the textbook, and then I’ll be able to flick through and find page whatever, diagram whatever, and talk it through with the student. (Science tutor)

One tutor however had little difficulty with this, suggesting that familiarity with using the Kindle can compensate for some of the problems associated with cognitive mapping, if the text is also familiar:

You know I’ve got quite an awareness of where certain subject material is, I’ve got a good idea of where they are and it’s just using it to double-check really…. I’m used to using it... I don’t find it time-consuming to scroll through. (Science tutor)

However, our findings so far, especially with regards to student learning, echo Thayer et al's (2011) conclusions, that e-Readers can "strip away" the kinaesthetic and spatial clues which support easy location of content. On these particular criteria the Kindle has performed poorly so far in this study, and most students did not use the e-Reader for their early assignments.

Diagrams and tables

Working with tables, diagrams and photos was a particular challenge using the Kindle, for both students and tutors, with problems caused mainly by the small (6 inch) screen and the lack of colour:

whereas normally if you had a table columns of numbers and you could easily come up and down and across and whatever, if you’re only limited to looking at a part of a table at a time, that restricts how much you could sort of analyse the data and work out what the data’s telling you so… I think that’s the limitation. (Science tutor)

This week whilst reading chapter 2, a table was actual split over two screens which made it difficult to read and as I have bad vision anyway, I did not feel that I could make the writing any smaller so that it would come on to one page. (D2)

in the pages I was studying this week there were lots of pictures and diagrams, and I was frustrated that even with enlarging them I still could not see them adequately… I took out the text book to study these particular pages. (S3)

Text is clear but, diagrams and photos don’t come up on the black and white screen clearly enough. Scientific data is often in colour and using this type of kindle has not met my needs. (S7)
Interacting with the text

A theme that emerged from students was difficulty with the more practical elements of using the text as a tool for learning, for example, highlighting and note-taking. Students found it particularly difficult to take notes:

So far I have found [it] too time consuming to add notes and highlight text on the kindle. (D6)

Writing text notes is cumbersome and I have given up, preferring to make notes on paper before I forget what I am putting. (S3)

I don’t like using the kindle for highlighting parts of text as I feel it is not as effective as the traditional coloured highlighter on paper. (S7)

I still studied the same way as I would with the printed book – by taking notes with pen and paper, although I didn’t highlight any text on the Kindle. (S4)

In practice, students did not use the Kindle's note-taking facilities; instead they preferred to take handwritten notes, which they used to refer back to, particularly when studying for an assignment. This was contrasted to their use of the textbook as a practical learning tool:

I do miss the wide margins provided in OU printed text books for scribbling personal thoughts/comments about the text. These have an immediacy of impact through recall of writing them and hence aid revision/re-reading. Flicking back to a note on the Kindle doesn’t seem to make such an impression. (S1)

I did notice that when I read the course text book, I tend to make notes as I go but when I use the kindle, I just read. (D2)

The implication is that students find the direct interaction with learning materials (which is so crucial to study) difficult with an e-Reader. Indeed, the implication of the second quote above is that using the Kindle is more passive: “I just read.” This contrasts with active note-taking on printed material, which one student described as 'a means of taking ownership of the knowledge/learning'. The difficulties with annotating text do seem to suggest that this is a major weakness with using an e-Reader for educational purposes. In this respect our study agrees with findings from several previous studies (eg Angelataki, 2011; Thayer et al, 2011; Behler, 2009), although it should be noted that these previous studies focused on the use of PDF texts rather than the dedicated Kindle format used here.

Changing study habits
Size matters

The most significant advantage, reported by nearly all students and tutors, and in common with previous findings (eg Richardson and Mahmood, 2012; Angelataki, 2011), is the small size, weight and portability of the e-Reader. The Kindles were used to study where students may not have been able to study before: at the top of mountains, in doctors' waiting rooms, at sick children's bedsides, on ferries, on buses, at bus stops and in bed. Responses on this topic include:

[The e-Reader is] Obviously much more convenient – wouldn't have lugged the great tome up the hill in my rucksack. Sometimes my learning has a sense of place about it – so I will recall facts/principles from where I physically was in the landscape as in 'oh yes, on that glorious day up Blencathra I learned about the Financial Planning Model then thought about the activities as I walked up.' (D1)

It seems very light and portable, does not need an internet connection, and is as easily held as a book would be. (D5)

My most challenging week yet – I was supposed to have Friday & Saturday to myself to catch up with my study. Both my children decided to get the flu within days of each other, so I had to fit in the studying with looking after sick children. I don’t think this would have mattered whether I was studying from paper or kindle. The up side was that I could sit beside my ill boys while reading, instead of being at a desk. Note taking was slightly more difficult. (S6)

I have found it absolutely invaluable because through my work I travel a lot and it means that I don’t have to be worried about taking all the textbooks with me. (Science tutor)

So rather than having a big book, you know, I’ve got a very small computer desk, I’ve just got a small Kindle. And I’ve got it on the book that we’re looking at. (Science tutor, talking about using the Kindle when running an online tutorial)

Students also described themselves as 'snatching' study time, where they studied for a few minutes with the Kindle whilst out, something not possible with a large textbook:

It is perfect for taking in your handbag and snatching a few minutes here and there. (S6)

I can study more because of the kindle. You are able to snatch extra time i.e. when commuting, out for a walk at lunch and because it fits in your handbag, you can always carry it about just in case. (D2)

Of course an interesting point for learning is whether this study is additional to or a substitute for other academic work. At least one student commented that because they felt they had 'done' their study on the Kindle, they tended to do less concentrated learning elsewhere in the week. For example one student reported that because they had read their textbook on the Kindle on the morning commute they didn't 'tend to study at home because I think that I can do it on the Kindle'. (D3)

'Surreptitious' study

Another interesting feature of the Kindle’s size is the capacity to do what we describe as surreptitious study. This is study which takes place when others are present, but do not know what the student is reading. Most commonly this was reported as taking place at work, but also in the home environment:

It is small enough to be discreetly used (I can read it in waiting rooms/in a quiet part of office). (D2)

I would have been uncomfortable reading a text book at the hairdressers however the kindle is inconspicuous and nobody questions it. They simple[y] assume you are enjoying a good book – which I am! … In fact this week it has been easier for me than a text book, which would have made me feel conspicuous in a public place. (S3)

One tutor also appreciated this feature of the Kindle:

nobody in public has any idea of the subject matter you are reading (unlike a book which has a cover and a title)…therefore you can concentrate safely in the knowledge that no-one beside or close to you is aware of the content. (Social science tutor)
Emerging results from our study suggest that it is possible to use the Kindle to support deep reading, but not active learning. Our preliminary findings point to a distinction between concentrated or deep reading and concentrated or active learning, with the new knowledge created by concentrated reading needing consolidation by active learning techniques. One example of such activity is the process of creating cognitive maps, whereby a student engages with, comprehends and builds their learning through skimming and flicking between pages of a traditional textbook, using spatial and kinaesthetic clues to locate content. Another example of active learning is highlighting relevant parts of the text and inserting marginal notes. We found that these activities were not well supported by the Kindle e-Reader. Both of these processes are particularly used during assignments; and it is during preparation of such assignments students tended not to use the e-Reader.

Balanced against this is the important advantage of portability and anonymity of reading associated with the e-Reader, which meant study materials were accessed and read more frequently and in more numerous locations than traditional module material. This could be particularly important for part-time distance students who often find it difficult to fit study time into busy, active and mobile lives. We must be careful to encourage students to use these new ways of studying as additional to the active learning that takes place in a more fixed setting.

Interestingly, so far we have not seen any difference in the ways that students from the two different subject disciplines, Science and Social Science, approach their learning using the e-Reader. Both sets of students could read deeply but had problems with active learning; both sets of students found the portability and anonymity to be the key strengths; and both sets of students found similar weaknesses in reading with the Kindle, including problems learning from tables and diagrams.

For tutors the main advantages so far seem to be in the portability of the device, which allows them to support students whilst travelling or at their places of work.

With data still being collected in this study, and analysis on-going, we should have further findings to communicate later. We plan to report further at a later date.
We are very grateful to the four hard-working tutors who are participating on this project. Thanks is also due to our student participants, who are willingly trying a new way of studying and giving up their time to write regular diaries. The OU Anywhere team also deserve our thanks, for expediting conversion of our module materials to Kindle format. We also gratefully acknowledge our funders, the Higher Education Academy, the Scottish Quality Assurance Agency Enhancement Themes project and The Open University.
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1 Corresponding author Email address:

2 Note that 'S' refers to individual Science students and 'D' refers to individual Social Science students.

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