Teaching and Learning with E-Readers: A Case Study at CLU

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Key Takeaways

  • California Lutheran University ran a two-semester pilot to explore how course use of e-readers affects student learning.
  • When students use the e-reader's interactive functions, they enter a personal, portable extended classroom that intensifies their learning experiences.
  • Gadget-addicted students use e-readers to combine their texting and gaming skills with solid pedagogies to improve their reading and writing skills.
  • At the conclusion of the pilots, the CLU instructor found that tying e-reader functions to the first-year Critical Reading and Writing course objectives had helped support and expand her most successful pedagogies.

Unlike most of the universities piloting e-readers, California Lutheran University focused on how these devices impact student learning rather than on sustainability, cost savings, and ubiquitous access to resources — although those are possible benefits as well. We ran a 2009–10 fall/spring e-reader pilot in two consecutive semester-long introductory English courses. Forty students (20 in each course) checked out Kindle e-readers from the CLU library. They created and used their individual Amazon accounts to download assigned texts for the duration of each of the pilot courses. Course material, accessible in Blackboard, was also made available to students on their e-readers.1

At the conclusion of the pilots, we found that tying e-reader functions to the first year Critical Reading and Writing course objectives had helped support and expand our most successful pedagogies. To demonstrate, this article highlights four of the eight traditional objectives of the English 111 course:

  • Learn to identify and write for varied audiences
  • Learn and integrate at least 100 new vocabulary words
  • Engage in deep reading
  • Develop the ability to write original, thesis-driven, well structured academic essays

The key to using e-readers to meet course objectives was to first identify and then teach students to apply the e-reader functions that best unleash the teaching and learning potential of the device. Once instructors have trained students how to use these functions (not a particularly time-intensive process), the students can work interactively on their own — within a personal extended classroom, one that intensifies their learning experiences. Instructors will then have helped students create new learning environments that are as portable as the e-readers themselves.

Identifying and Writing for Varied Audiences

Each of CLU's pilot students wrote an essay about the course use of an e-reader (its features, its intercourse with other technologies, and whether/how it enhanced learning). These essays addressed several audiences, including the students' classmates, their instructor, and those who would be taking the class in subsequent semesters. Students posted these critiques as blogs on the course Blackboard site, knowing that they were setting the format for other students who would later contribute to the blog.

Their clear understanding of audience and topic gave students a chance to practice "situational" writing, practice that sharpened their style, clarified their syntax, and gave them a confidence that transferred to later, more specifically academic papers.2 The grades on these (and on subsequent pilot student papers) averaged a 10-point increase over the grades on papers in the instructor's previous English 111 classes. Even the essay portions of their tests (three quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam) showed significant improvement over those of students in previous semesters, especially in clarity and conciseness.

Learning and Integrating New Vocabulary Words

Increasing vocabulary is a traditional objective for the CLU introductory English course, since a developed vocabulary is one of the most important foundations for building critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. Most students, however, don't use print dictionaries to look up unfamiliar words as they plow through their reading assignments (although they may occasionally look up a word online). Unless vocabulary words are specifically taught and tested, student interest in expanding vocabulary tends to be negligible.

After learning to use the Kindle e-reader's built-in New Oxford American Dictionary, students did a 180. They were tested on vocabulary in assigned readings, and they formally learned seven to ten new words a week. But the informal learning was the pleasure and the surprise (see "Using the Dictionary"). Students in both pilots unanimously reported that they were looking up words in the reader on their own. These young gamers loved being able to, as one student put it, "get the definitions of words within seconds." Looking up two, three, or more words on a single page quickly became a habit. Creating a conscious, disciplined, and more self-directed approach to building vocabulary has given pilot students the tools and incentive to learn and assimilate vocabulary from their e-readings.

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Video: Using the Dictionary

Developing the Desire to Engage in Deep and Sustained Reading

Jessica Pruitt, one of the pilot students, was convinced "that the Kindle is what's going to get our younger generation interested in reading." Other students agreed, offering a variety of reasons to support this conviction:

  • Some said they read more closely and were more engaged in the texts because they liked the "isolated page" experience.
  • Students noted that seeing only one page of an assigned text at a time eliminated a bundle of little distractions — distractions they had not realized were part of their previous reading experiences with print texts.3
  • Several students wrote that highlighting, annotating, and saving text in the e-reader's "My Clippings" resulted in a deeper engagement with readings than they had experienced in the past.

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Videos: Using "My Clippings"

  • These "gaming generation" students reported that they liked the thumb-clicking required to move from one page to another and as a consequence found themselves wanting to read more pages.
  • They also liked being able to create a customized, comfortable reading environment: adapting text size to their changing needs; downloading and listening to their favorite "studying" music as they read; and using the text-to-voice function to keep up with their reading assignments while traveling.

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Video: Music on the Kindle

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Video: Text-to-Audio Function

  • Jeremy Swenson, one of the 14 CLU students who will spend the 2010 fall semester studying at Oxford and traveling to specific European locations, is excited that his group will be provided with Kindles. He noted that on his last study-abroad trip, he had to carry a suitcase filled entirely with books.

Developing Proficiency in Academic Writing

A primary objective of CLU's English 111 course is that students develop the ability to write original, thesis-driven, well-structured academic essays. We used the e-readers to help the pilot students achieve this objective. The result, according to the instructor, was that their papers were more thorough and more detailed than the usual English 111 papers. Students used e-readers in class to read, discuss, highlight, and take notes on specific passages. As they developed their note taking and summary skills, the students created a body of material and saved it in "My Clippings," the e-reader's storage space for notes and highlights.

In previous semesters, the first step in helping students develop the ability to write a solid academic essay has been to assign a five-page freewrite — five pages of initial stream-of-consciousness-like responses to and ideas about a given topic or reading. Students often had difficulties with this assignment, even those who had marked passages in their print texts to use in their freewrites. In the pilot courses, students were shown how to access their e-reader "My Clippings" as a base for the freewrite assignment. Having notes and quotations stored in "My Clippings" meant they could download this material into a Word document, a process that saved them the time of having to find, type, and cite those quotations and notes. "What's so great about having these saved notes," said one student, "is that when I'm ready to write my paper, I have many ideas from many different parts of the text." Students revisited material they had already thought about, and their freewrites were, across the board, more thorough and more interesting than the "cold" (and choppier and shorter) freewrites of previous semesters.

Using the freewrite, English 111 students must next identify and craft a solid thesis. They locate the most interesting ideas in their freewrites and shape them into one-sentence theses or controlling ideas for their assigned papers. Gelena Correa wrote her five-page freewrite using material transferred from her "My Clippings" e-reader storage area, crafted her sketch of her emerging paper, and then wrote her first draft.

Writing successes like Gelena's were perhaps the most satisfying of the many positive results of CLU's pilot e-reader project. Another plus relative to the writing component of the course was that using e-reader functions to develop papers virtually eliminated plagiarism problems. Most of our pilot students became habituated to reading deeply, finding definitions for and using new vocabulary words, writing better and more engaging essays, and carrying their portable learning environment into their extracurricular lives. These results have convinced us that e-readers are great learning devices for gadget-addicted students, and that putting their texting and gaming skills to work within solid pedagogical structures can help them improve their reading and writing skills.

  1. Most course documents were in PDF format. Amazon made a software update to the Kindle II, so students had the option of e-mailing the documents to their Kindle accounts and downloading them, or using the new drag-and-drop feature by connecting their Kindles directly to their personal computers.
  2. Clive Thompson's review of Andrea Lunsford's research on the positive results of "life writing" references similar conclusions about the benefits of "situational writing." See "Clive Thompson on the New Literacy," Wired Magazine: vol. 17:09 (August 24, 2009).
  3. The apps available on many electronic devices detract from a student's potential to focus on deep reading. For that reason, unthinkingly embracing new e-devices that "offer it all" is probably not a good idea.

Recommended Resources

Jason Epstein, "Publishing: The Revolutionary Future," New York Review, March 11, 2010

Amanda Lenhart, Susan Arafeh, Aaron Smith, and Alexandra Macgill, "Writing, Technology and Teens," Pew Internet and American Life Project, April 24, 2008

Tamar Lewin, "If Your Children Are Awake, Then They're Probably Online," New York Times,January 20, 2010, Section A, Column 0, National Desk, p. 1

Tom McHale, "Portrait of a Digital Native," Tech & Learning, September 15, 2005

Mark R. Nelson and Elizabeth Hains, "E-Books in Higher Education: Are We There Yet?" ECAR Research Bulletin 2, 2010

Marc Prensky, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," from On the Horizon (NCB University Press, vol. 9, no. 5, October 2001)

Marc Prensky, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently?" from On the Horizon (NCB University Press, vol. 9, no. 6, December 2001)

Josh Quittner, "Future of Reading," Fortune, vol. 161, no. 3 (March 1, 2010)

Larry D. Rosen, Jennifer Chang, Lynne Erwin, L. Mark Carrier, and Nancy A. Cheever, "The Relationship Between 'Textisms' and Formal and Informal Writing Among Young Adults," Communication Research, vol. 37, no. 3 (June 2010), p 420–440
Clive Thompson, "Clive Thompson on the New Literacy," Wired Magazine: vol. 17:09 (August 24, 2009)