September 23, 2009 — This fall, about 60 first-year M.B.A. students at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business have been getting a sneak peek at the future of education – or at least a beta version of that future.
For about a month they have been using the Amazon Kindle DX, an electronic book reader, loaded with all the semester's textbooks and readings, as part of a yearlong pilot program at Darden and six other universities.
A month into the fall semester, the Kindle is getting mixed reviews. It's great for basic reading, said several Darden students, but not so useful for interactive tasks like highlighting passages, making notes or quickly pulling up notes during class discussions, a focus of Darden's case method curriculum.
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Class participation often accounts for 50 percent of a student's final grade, said Darden professor Michael Koenig, who's overseeing the Kindle pilot. "If the Kindle DX does not allow you to very quickly navigate around what you've done and prepared for class, it's not going to be used, so that's really part of what we're assessing."
Kindle readers were first introduced in 2006, with millions sold since. The third iteration, the Kindle DX has a larger screen (9.7 inches, measured diagonally), better suited to reading textbooks.
E-readers like the Kindle have a number of advantages. They eliminate paper consumption. The non-backlit black and white screens are visually similar to the printed page and don't cause eyestrain, like computer monitors or iPhones.
Weighing just over one pound but able to hold thousands of books and articles in its memory, the Kindle is much lighter than a bag full of textbooks and binders. The tote-ability is especially nice when traveling, Koenig noted. On weekend duty with the Army Reserve, Darden student Phillip Green said it was "awesome" to be able to carry the single light unit and do readings during lulls in field training.
The Kindle can even read aloud with a male or female voice that's smoother than many past computer narrators, Green said, making it handy for absorbing some knowledge while driving or working in the garden.
But interactive tasks are where the Kindle stumbles, students said. Its tiny keyboard is frustrating to use for more than jotting a few words, noted several students, who also agreed that having an interactive touchscreen, like the iPhone, would be a huge improvement, especially for highlighting. (That's one of the features of the just-released iRex e-reader.)
Instead, the Kindle has a small pointer joystick that moves a cursor around to highlight text, a process that is considerably slower and more cumbersome than manually highlighting on a printed page, Darden student Emily Cherry noted.
On the plus side, when passages are highlighted, the Kindle groups them into a "My Notes" file, and having all the notes together in one place "almost creates an outline for you," Darden first-year Joe Chard said.
But there's no capability to organize the readings or notes into folders, a "must-have" feature for any heavy user, Koenig said, noting that Darden students must juggle 75 to 90 documents every quarter.
This is a first stab at the challenge of replacing textbooks, Chard noted. "It makes sense that their first go at it isn't going to be perfect."
"For reading a book, I think it's great. But for use in a business school classroom, it hasn't worked yet for me," said Cherry, who leaves her Kindle at home because it's just one more thing to carry along with her laptop and case reading binders. She sits in the back of her classes, and when she looks around, usually sees less than 50 percent of her classmates with a Kindle out.
All the interactivity deficiencies of the Kindle are non-issues when using PDF files on a laptop (some laptops, often called tablet PCs, even have touchscreens), raising questions about the future of e-readers.
"Everyone at school pretty much needs a laptop," Cherry said. "Can we do everything with one machine? It's going away from paper at some point. Whether it will end up on a Kindle or laptop, that I don't know."
Regardless of the Kindle's shortcomings, just being involved in the pilot program is a unique learning opportunity, Chard said. "I feel so lucky to be at a school that really jumped on this and took advantage of it, letting us be a part of educational innovation and using it as part of our business education here. That's the neatest thing about it. Product development – how a company targets a market, how they run a pilot, how they test a product, how they gather feedback – all those things are really interesting to us."