Dr Xiang Ren writes:
The latest e-ink quarterly sales report suggests a 46% drop in Q2 2013. As the consumer eReader market shrinks faster than many expected, industries are keen to explore new markets like digital education, especially harnessing the wave of e-textbooks. However, tablets are ahead of eReaders in terms of functionality, usability, and suitability for educational purposes[i] and are increasingly taking over eReaders in classrooms today. Horizon Report 2012 pointed out that, tablets are “distinct from other mobile devices” including eReaders, which “are ideal tools for sharing content, videos, images, and presentations”. As such, do eReaders have a future in the education market?
Despite the drawbacks like the absence of true colour display and low refresh rate, eReaders have “a number of characteristics that make it ideal for consuming textual content” such as good contrast and battery longevity[ii].
Comfortable and concentrated long time reading is the most important advantage making eReaders more suitable hardware for reading e-textbooks than tablets. Additionally eReaders’ simple functionality helps the user to avoid distractions from irrelevant applications like games.
The problem is that such advantages have not been fully harnessed for educational uses because eReaders are mostly designed for leisure reading. Moreover, eReaders like Kindle normally belong to complicated commercial systems characterised by low profit margins in hardware while high profitability in digital content. As such, a number of useful functions are restricted in order to ensure consumers engage in and purchase specific content products.
Not surprisingly, as some pilot projects and research[iii] suggests, existing eReaders fail to meet some essential demands of education:
- Compatibility: very few eReaders are compatible with all formats of eBooks; for example, Kindle does not support epub: the reading experience with PDF in eReaders is terrible, which is, however, a very popular format for academic content. Additionally, digital libraries, also an essential use for educational users, are not well supported by eReaders.
- Interactivity: compared with leisure learning, educational users are more interactive. Students need to take notes, highlight, annotate, and cite text all the time and use them for other learning activities like essay writing. But eReaders provide very limited interactive functions.
- Collaboration: eLearning is increasingly social and collaborative. Teachers and students need to share annotations and discuss in virtual communities and collaborate in online tools like Google Doc. Tablets support such collaborative uses much better than eReaders.
As such, eReaders need to further customize software and functionalities for the education market. Technologically it is not very difficult. Even some individual hackers can design eReader devices and add the functions they want. The big challenge exists in business models.
The business of eReaders has evolved into a closed ecosystem. Unlike tablets that employ an open system, allowing third party apps to add rich functions, eReader business depends on restricting functions and uses for profits. If eReaders install a highly open and customizable system, what will be the business models then? Without cross-subsidy from content business, how much eReader hardware should be priced? Or, is it viable to build new cross-subsidy models and digital educational ecosystems based on eReaders and textual content? Also, who will lead the transformation: hardware manufacturers, educational publishers, platforms like Amazon, or universities and schools? These are practical questions the eReader industries need to consider before they go further in education market.
In countries like China, where student near-sightedness rate is high, eLearning market values e-ink devices more than tablets for its eye-friendly features. This difference has not attracted enough attention in Australia, the UK, and the US. In future, when digital devices are heavily used in classroom, particularly, long time reading of e-textbook, the advantages of eReaders will be more obvious. This is a real market opportunity.
The latest Kobo Aura HD has a number of improvements including a stronger CPU, larger screen with higher resolution and refresh rate. Though targeting consumer market mainly, it provides suitable hardware for further customization for education. Sony will release a 13.3 inch e-ink slate (A4 paper phototype) and invite Japanese universities to try the new devices. Instead of eBook readers, Sony defines this product as ‘digital paper” that aims to improve the overall efficiency of classes. This will be an interesting experiment, redesigning eReaders as an enabling e-ink device for digital education.
Back to the question of “do eReaders have a future in education market”, it is still too early to say goodbye to eReaders. But the industries need to redesign the functionalities of eReaders, improving compatibility, interactivity, and social functions for education. It is also important to reinvent business models in order to establish an ecosystem of digital education instead of leisure reading. In short, to compete with tablets in education market, eReaders need an evolution.
[i]Olsen, Arthur N., Kleivset, Birgitte, &Langseth, Henry. (2013). E-Book Readers in Higher Education: Student Reading Preferences and Other Data From Surveys at the University of Agder. SAGE Open, 3(2).doi: 10.1177/2158244013486493
[ii]Daly, L. . (2012). Digital Monograph Technical Landscape: Exemplars and Recommendations (#jiscPUB Project Report). from http://jiscpub.blogs.edina.ac.uk/final-report/
[iii]Here listed a few examples: Clark, D.T., Goodwin, S.P., Samuelson, T., & Coker, C. (2008). A qualitative assessment of the Kindle e-book reader: results from initial focus groups. Performance Measurement and Metrics, 9(2), pp118-129.; Behler, A. (2009). E-readers in action: an academic library teams with Sony to assess the technology. American Libraries, 40(10), pp56-59.; Allmang, N.A., &Bruss, S.M. (2010). What customers want from Kindle books.Online, 34(1), pp36-39.
Image credit: Kobo Aura HD by ActuaLitte under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence