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E-readers for e-learning: first impressions and a call to arms.


E-book readers are a relatively new portable computing device. Their key strength is the use of e-ink aimed at reducing eye strain. Emerging brands offer various features including touch screen navigation, wireless connectivity, multimedia, annotating, rss feeds, internet browsing, text-to-speech and likely soon colour display.

There are obvious potential uses for e-readers in education, for example studying, distributing content, loaning library material, marking and note taking. The author has not completed a formal study using e-readers but will present some initial reflections on possible advantages and issues, having made some use of a Sony Reader.


E-readers have major advantages being very portable and able to facilitate near instant access to a huge range of texts and media, ideally more cost effectively than paper based media. E-ink does seem easier and better to read than backlit displays and has good power usage. In common with other digital media e-readers offer greater interactivity and enable non-linear navigation. On balance they could be better for the environment than paper media.


There are however limitations- some intrinsic, some probably more temporary, but many imposed.

Restrictions and limitations

Institutions will need to carefully consider the functionality, distribution options and formats available with different brands and the implications for using or supporting these. Typical device settings and Terms of Use agreements are restrictive, using Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, locking books to specific devices and devices to specific users or to a quota of authorised computers and delivering corporate oversight and control of content. Despite varying support for adding free or alternative content and technical workarounds, these prescribed conditions constrain their potential use.

Vendor tracking of e-reader content and use creates privacy concerns. Combined with a lack of security and encryption features, this affects storing more sensitive information. We should also be aware of accessibility problems if their use in education is obligatory rather than supplementary as Arizona State University discovered. There is currently some risk that products may be discontinued as this is a relatively new and competitive field, as could happen to the Nook if Amazon enforce their surprise patent.

Display and formatting

One practical issue that could prove challenging is displaying documents that are larger or have specific layouts (as with many text books) on smaller screens. Although formats like the open epub boast ‘reflowable’ text formatting and devices try to handle content like images cleverly, there is a basic dilemma here between portability and functionality. It should be interesting to see future developments in this area, perhaps multiple or flexible screen sizes, changes in publishing formats and creative advances in human/computer interfaces.

Health considerations

There must still be further consideration of health issues as e-ink is relatively untested, substitutes for e-ink like OLED are not currently as good, there have been criticisms about touch screen combinations and e-readers have comparable usability and safety issues to other small digital devices.

Other concerns

Other drawbacks and complaints may however prove rather transient as both technologies and users evolve. The availability of content is rapidly increasing. Loss or damage will become less serious as devices become more widespread and affordable. You will be able to read in the bath. More fundamentally (and sidestepping the e-book versus paper debates), surely we can expect the future to bring significant technological and cultural changes in how we interact with information, where current expectations and concerns, for example some aesthetic points, have been resolved or superseded. It won’t be the first time new technology has emerged, as this humorous video sketches.


In conclusion, although it is impossible to predict the future, e-reader and e-ink technology look set to have an impact in computing generally, and in education as an addition to the array of mobile technologies e-learning will support and use, particularly given continuing developments. But at the risk of stirring up

a lively debate, I would argue from issues noted in this article that it is apparent the biggest problems are being created by the corporate vendors and publishers trying to dominate the arena and unfairly maximise profits at the users’ expense using an ‘Apple/iTunes-style’ marketing strategy where customers sign up to a single company for hardware, software and content with few consumer rights. I urge all prospective users to protest and avoid locked-in business models, proprietary formats, over the top DRM, privacy invasions, patent obsessed vendors and greedy publishers. Let’s demand a fair service with respect for users.

Some use cases:

A library of training resources for farmers insurance agents.
New Jersey Library Starts Lending Kindles.
Barnes & Noble partners with Blackboard

Some links:

Calibre software
E-Reader Tech + Trends from Webbmedia Group
Things you should know about…E-Readers from Educause

Some content sources:
London libraries consortium

By: Brent Cunningham
Learning technologist
King’s College, London
Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery
Tel: 020 7848 3916

posted by fote-conference on July 23, 2010

2 thoughts on “E-readers for e-learning: first impressions and a call to arms.”

  1. martin king says:

    I’m not sure that e-readers have any future.

    E-readers remind me of the days when we had computers and word processors – for a while dedicated word processors some advantages over computers with apps like Wordperfect, Wordstar and Word but eventually the general purpose device took over.

    publishers would like to lock in a stack from the e-reader upwards but I’m sure that general purpose mobile will win – who wants to carry around yet another device when you already mobile “computer” and if you have a limited budget which would you choose.

  2. martin king says:

    E-book, like email, is a technology extension of traditional a mode, hopefully a transition mode to more active and rich media formats.

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