EReaders good for more than books

By Kayla Sweeney

Most Pitt students will tell you that textbooks are cumbersome and expensive. Whether eReaders… Most Pitt students will tell you that textbooks are cumbersome and expensive. Whether eReaders present a better alternative, however, is up for debate.

Despite growing national popularity — last December, Amazon reported that its third-generation Kindle was the highest-selling item in the company’s history — eReaders remain scarce on campus. In fact, The Pitt News recently reported that electronic textbooks account for less than 1 percent of total textbooks sales from the Book Center.

Nevertheless, faculty members like poet and Pitt writing professor CM Burroughs are choosing to make the switch. Burroughs has gone completely paperless in her personal life and her classes, mostly through use of her eReader, an iPad.

“I am a minimalist and attempt to live with a focus on being green, so my use of the iPad as a library inside and outside of the classroom has been a beneficial part of my lifestyle,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs digitized her personal library — scanning about 500 out of 1,000 books into her iPad — and now uses the device for personal composition.

As a poet, Burroughs said being able to write on the go — sans paper — has been helpful.

“I don’t think that this technology is for everyone. But I am minimalist, paperless, and I utilize texts constantly in my academic and artistic roles, so it is an ideal tool for me,” she said.

Some eReaders hold certain advantages for students as well as professors: Many instructors supplement their classes with additional reading material — most often they use PDF files accessible through Courseweb, which can be downloaded onto eReaders. The eReaders negate the need to print out these assignments, allowing students to preserve their University paper allowance.

But Pitt information sciences professor Geoffrey C. Bowker sees some potential downsides to what might seem ideal.

According to the professor, a senior scholar of cyberscholarship in the School of Information Sciences, “Only with the iPad do we have a reader that deals OK with PDFs, which is the form of many academic articles.”

He also explained that students who like writing on their readings might have trouble as “notetaking and marginalia are very difficult and clunky.”

Students cited similar drawbacks of eReaders.

Last fall, Amazon gave Princeton University a number of Kindle DXs to pilot a study on the extent to which eReaders are actually used in college. Although the researchers found that the amount of paper used to print readings in some classes dropped by as much as 50 percent among the Kindle users, students believed that the eReaders needed to undergo further changes before going mainstream on campus.

Specifically, students cited the following five reasons as the most important improvements for eReaders to implement: “the ability to highlight and annotate PDF files, improving the annotation tools, providing a folder structure to keep similar readings together, improving the highlighting function and improving the navigation within and between documents on the reader (including having more than one document open at the same time for comparison).”

Overall, researchers found that students tend to prefer not using devices like the Kindle for eTextbooks.

But the iPad offers more than eBooks. The App Store offers students the option to download many educational applications — some free and some available for a small fee. These include Star Walk, the most downloaded app under the education category, which allows students to visualize constellations and track stars’ movements; Spanish Touch Trainer, which presents itself as a means of memorizing Spanish verbs in an aesthetically pleasing way; a graphing calculator app, and an app for the popular online calculus tool WolframAlpha.

Because of this progress, eReader proponents remain optimistic.

Stephanie Mantello, the senior public relations manager for the Kindle, said in an e-mail that “[Amazon] will continue to innovate … and will always look at ways of improving the student experience on Kindle.”

SGB president Molly Stieber, who uses an iPad, said she thinks eReaders will grow as a presence on campuses.

“I remember when [eReaders] were new and scary,” Stieber said. “But now I truly think they are the future.”