[Mobile Perspectives: On e-books] E-Reading: The Transition in Higher Education

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David McCarthy ([email protected]) is Director of Product Management for Digital Education at Barnes & Noble.

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"The current optimal e-reading solution for higher education is a robust laptop home base with an ecosystem that interacts with tablets and e-readers for mobile consumption."

Higher education's interest in digital content, especially e-books, has gone off the charts. With the rapid acceptance of e-books for pleasure reading, attention has now shifted to e-textbooks and their promise of significant cost savings and cutting-edge features. But getting a good grasp on the fast-moving realm of digital content for higher education can be a Herculean feat.

In my role as director of product management for the digital education team at Barnes & Noble, I am responsible for defining Barnes & Noble's digital products for higher education. Recently, to help us gain a deeper understanding of this emerging field, my team and I performed extensive user research on students' needs and expectations regarding digital content. Though our research explored a seemingly constant stream of new formats, devices, and business models, one common theme emerged: a digital transformation in higher education can succeed only if it is tailored to the unique needs of students in the academic setting.

This Is Not Music

Many people like to compare the growth of e-reading to the explosion of digital music a decade ago. This comparison is only partially correct. Digital music affected the music's distribution, not its consumption. Digital books, on the other hand, require that readers fundamentally change the way they interact with a book's content. This makes e-reading a more complicated transformation for users, since they must adjust to both a new format and a new process.

The physical book's simplicity and convenience are hard to duplicate. Physical books are inexpensive, user-friendly, portable, and so simple a two-year-old can use them. Not surprisingly, even though today's students were weaned on sophisticated technology, theystill love the flexibility of a printed book. It is important to remember that college students don't just read their books; they literally consume books through highlighting, underlining, dog-earing pages, and note-taking. Additionally, when studying, students often use multiple resources simultaneously: textbooks, notebooks, professors' handouts, and their personal laptops. Creating a digital experience that can support this immersive kind of study raises the bar far beyond presenting words on a screen.

Three Layers of Digital Reading

Reading with a digital device requires the user to view the content through three layers. The first layer is the device itself (e.g., hand-held, PC, Mac, Smartphone). The second layer is the rendering software and controls, which format the content display and provide navigation and fine-tuning of the content's appearance (e.g., page turning, zooming, changing fonts). The third layer is the content. Each of these layers should be optimized or configured to the needs of the end user—in this case, the student.

Reading Hardware

"Creating a digital experience that can support this immersive kind of study raises the bar far beyond presenting words on a screen."

When e-reading devices appeared a few years ago, institutions jumped to pilot this new technology as a way to introduce digital textbooks into their classrooms. But students and administrators quickly found that these devices were optimized for trade reading, not studying. What students needed were devices and software that could adapt to the unique ways they consume and use information. As a result, the pilots were generally viewed as unsuccessful.

As part of our research into students' digital needs and expectations, we reviewed how effectively different devices served up the content that students used most. Our findings revealed that textbook content taxes digital devices because of the format's large multi-column layout, color images, and graphs. From our research with students, we established the following minimum requirements for an optimal digital study device:

  • 10" or larger color screen
  • 5-8 hours minimum battery life
  • Adequate entry mechanism including keyboard, mouse, and/or stylus
  • 32 gigabytes or more of memory
  • Multitasking support

Currently, the best device for satisfying the majority of these requirements is the laptop. A laptop is a particularly attractive option because most students already own one, so there is no incremental cost. It is also the only solution that supports all of the other software that students need (e.g., browser, word-processor, specialized software) in an integrated multitasking environment.

Tablets like the iPad and color e-readers such as NOOKcolor are evolving toward these requirements, but by themselves, they cannot support a student's needs. For now, tablets can serve as satellite e-readers to the "home base" of a laptop. Students can do the heavy studying and content parsing on their laptops and use tablets as an on-the-go solution for reading and annotation. As tablets evolve, they will likely satisfy the main requirements for delivering a suitable digital study environment.

In summary, the current optimal e-reading solution for higher education is a robust laptop home base with an ecosystem that interacts with tablets and e-readers for mobile consumption.

Reading Software and Ecosystem

Reading software for e-textbooks must combine the simplicity and convenience of the printed book with the unique and complex ways that students interact with educational content. The software should mimic the physical book where appropriate (e.g., page numbering) and enhance studying through features unique to the digital format (e.g., full-text search). To accommodate students' tendency to collect and refer back to other content sources, the software should also accept external content such as personal notes and/or a professor's PowerPoint lectures.

During our research, we found that students wanted features that replicated the physical book experience, such as highlighting and note-taking. However, because this was a "digital" format, students also expected features that were unique to the digital environment, such as quick Internet searches, tagging content, and automated study-guide creation. Commonly requested features included the following:

  • Highlighting and annotation (i.e., book markup)
  • Content tagging
  • Full-text search within and across content
  • Faculty sharing of annotation and highlights
  • Integration with other content sources and learning management systems
  • Integrated web resource lookup
  • Study tools such as study-guide creators or flashcards

Overall, the features that were most popular with students were those that allowed them to create a comfortable and organized study environment. Our research clearly indicates that a student-focused study platform should be built around tools for content organization because studying, at its core, is an exercise in organization and access.

Throughout our research, we found that some students retained their print-based methods of study while others adopted a vastly different approach within the digital environment. Platforms should therefore offer students a palette of features and tools that let them customize the study experience to their strengths. Institutions that adopt digital platforms must be aware they are also adopting the specific toolset that students are locked into for studying.

Digital platforms also need to support the needs of disabled students. The two major areas of disability to be addressed are physical and vision. Text-to-speech for both content and navigation-and-control is required. The platform should also allow for multiple input choices for every action using either a mouse or a keyboard. There are additional and varying disability requirements at each institution, so the campus disability office should be consulted whenever different digital reading platforms are being evaluated.


Digital book content in higher education is centered mainly on textbooks. Today's e-textbooks are flat, exact re-creations of their physical versions because digital and physical versions are used together in a single class. Less than 20 percent of content requested by faculty is available in a digital format, meaning that the "digital only" classroom is still a ways off.

Over time, digital content will explode out of the context of the printed book. Content will be offered at the micro level, such as a chapter at a time. We could also see never-ending links to additional content—whereby accounting content bleeds into finance content which bleeds into economics content, giving faculty the ability to cut out the exact patches of content they want. Digital platforms have also unlocked opportunities for the creation of open-source and free content, apart from textbook publishers.

Though e-books are beginning to include multimedia and interactive tools, students have expressed reserved excitement about these features. Only if these features can be organized or parsed do students think the tools would be useful. For example, they want the transcript of the embedded video as much as they want the video itself.

Summary Findings

We tested Barnes & Noble's higher education platform NOOKstudy with students in several schools to see if it addressed the major issues we found in our research. Given the opportunity, students are willing to experiment with reading and studying digitally, but their expectations for usability and features are very high.

When reviewing digital platforms, higher education institutions should assess the platform on both reading and studying criteria. They should evaluate the entire ecosystem—including hardware, software, and the availability of content—and consult with the disability office. Lastly, institutions need to be careful not to overcommit to a solution. The transition to e-reading is going to take longer than for other digital media, so an incremental approach may be wiser than an all-in commitment.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 2 (March/April 2011)