Friday, October 2, 2009

Media exaggeration on the Daily Princetonian story

Media exaggeration and some misrepresentation was of interest to me this week as online columns described The Daily Princetonian report on, essentially, one student's remarks and turned it into a "consensus of students" and headlined "failure" of the Kindle at Princeton, from those bare bones after the beginning two weeks of an entire Fall Session study.

Longterm, who knows, that could be, but not based on the college newspaper's story.

  (I've had my own doubts about our inability to make notes on PDF's, a critical flaw for academic use, even if there are workarounds, and have written about it.)

But, after reading yet another misstatement of the Daily Princetonian story from a writer at a large online tecnnical site who actually gave the most balanced interpretation I've read (from about 20 online articles), I wrote a comment to the columnist.  I'll just insert that here and call it a day.  (There is a lot of other, more interesting news and I'll get those up tomorrow night.)

Written to the column mentioned above:
' October 1, 2009 7:34 PM PDT
' _____, you wrote one of the most balanced pieces on The Daily Princetonian report but even you said:
' Feedback from some students complained about the
Kindle's annotation system being "too slow" to keep up with the thinking of a reader who wants to effortlessly mark up text.  Others called the entire Kindle device "a poor excuse for an academic tool." '
  As with the other online reports that used mostly one student's feedback [but referred to] "some" and "others" (as above), they were/are all quoting primarily Aaron Horvath, who said all of the above.

  The ONE other student quoted talked about the 'huge benefits' and the downsides as well, one of the downsides being that you have to charge the Kindle to use it.

  The other two people quoted were
  (1) an obviously resistant professor who was "permitting"! his students (in a selected KINDLE STUDY classroom) to use Kindle location numbers, since not one of the students has dropped out of the study though they are allowed to, and
  (2) another professor who enjoys using the Kindle and had nothing negative to quote.

The Amazon Kindle study with several universities is taking place this year, so it's no surprise the relative effectiveness of the learning process using an e-reader and the paper-saving goals which are also a focus) wouldn't be studied next year.

  From that we've been getting tons of articles generalizing from that one student's words after two weeks of use, calling [the negative feelings] a "consensus" in one article and the study "a failure" in others.  As I say, yours was the most balanced I've read of about a dozen so far. '

  I don't know.  Am I the only one who wishes columnists would not overgeneralize and, essentially, mischaracterize one student's statements this way?
  The reluctant professor is obviously not loving the idea in the first place.  But the headlines have been about how "students" are responding to the Kindle :-).

  Students are allowed to opt out of the program, but so far none have, and we've now heard, primarily, from one student out of the 50 in the study. Below are ways to Share this post if you'd like others to see it.
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  1. Hi Andrys,

    First, let me say that I hope most people would agree that overgeneralization by journalists is not a good thing for their profession or their consumers. However, that may be (unfortunately, in my view) a by-product of the perceived need to sacrifice depth in hopes of hanging on to readers/viewers/ listeners whose attention span is pulled in so many different directions at once. But that’s probably a different discussion. With regard to the actual Daily Princetonian report you cited, I was drawn to the statement by Rachel George, the student who had concerns about having to charge the Kindle. It was her other comment about “the impossibility of ‘flipping through’ a book” that resonated with me. One of the things I’ve been curious/concerned about is the utility of Kindles for *in-class* usage, versus for out-of-class study purposes. I wouldn’t put Ms. George’s viewpoint forward as the “definitive” one any more than I would Mr. Horvaths’s, but I do think it raises an issue that would affect many classroom environments, especially in disciplines like mine (business management), where “flipping pages” for in-class lecture references is a pretty standard feature.

    Which raises another point. Going back to your concern about the overgeneralization of initial comments, I hope that one of the studies in the current seven schools, or in some future one, will examine not just the facility of Kindles (and other e-readers) for in-class *usage*, but also explore their value for *learning outcomes*. A lot of the attention has rightly been placed on the students’ experience and interaction with the Kindle, but the instructor of the course will present material in his/her particular style, so the Kindle needs to serve as a conduit between teaching styles and learning styles. In a situation where all the students had a Kindle, theoretically, the instructor could adapt his/her presentation style to the Kindle’s capabilities, so that the learning environment was optimized [although, in my experience, relying on professors’ willingness to voluntarily drastically change their methods might be a bit optimistic ;-) ]. However, in the situation where some students have e-readers and others have paper texts (which my hunch is going to be the more likely scenario for the immediate future), the e-reader needs to replicate the paper format’s functionality as closely as possible in order to have equitable education. It’s here that I believe the speed-of-annotation issues, “flipping” problems, etc., cause the greatest difficulties for classroom use of the Kindle. For that reason, I would love to see an empirical study that compared not only learning outcomes in classes with only Kindles against classes with only paper texts, but also outcomes in classes where Kindles and paper texts were used simultaneously.

    Finally, similar to some of our discussions about there being no need for Device A to be a “killer” of Device B, I don’t see these early studies as an all-or-nothing proposition. I’m sure that the Kindle is not all it can or will be. As you’ve said, these are “interesting times” in the e-reader arena, and I’m excited to think about how some of the coming technological advancements in these devices can help me learn how to both teach better and learn better. Long post, I know, but you threw one into my intellectual curiosity “wheelhouse” with this one :-). Take care.

  2. As a professor, I find the Kindle incredibly useful for my research, teaching, class planning, and simple non-work-related fun. It has been literally a life-saver on numerous occasions. So I have no idea what people are complaining about.

  3. Batman,
    Everything you said makes sense to me. As for flipping, I do it based on what I'm looking for (either remembering what I had read earlier or looking ahead), and the closest useful thing I can do to make up for the inability to flip pages is use the search function.

    I wonder why they did away with the alt-NextPage allowing us to go another 5% forward!

    Might say more to your note tonight. Rushing out for now. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Clarissa, good to hear. Obviously I react the same way to my own Kindle(s) it's no surprise to me that it's useful for what you do.

    I wonder if any of the students, after making notes, have checked out our individual private note pages at

  5. I appreciate your accurate and balanced reporting about Kindle, and enjoy hearing about ereader news in general. Keep up the good work.

  6. Andrys,

    Yes, I think the search function is somewhat helpful, but if you have to reference two or three pages quickly (and in a 75-minute class period, every little bit counts), I find I don’t have the ability to type that quickly on the Kindle 2 keyboard (I’ve haven’t had the chance to try a DX yet). However, I think that even with existing technology, there ought to be a way to combine the content capture elements of “smart board” units with wireless functionality (a la Whispernet) to have the instructor control the desired content to be discussed, and have that content pushed to the students’ e-readers. So, for example, “Figure 2” in Chapter 4 could be compared with “Table 1” in Chapter 6 by sending those files from a central control panel to the students’ devices, thereby eliminating the “flipping” need. This might also be an area where a dual-screen model reader would have some value. Of course, the issue still goes back to the presumption that everyone will have access to the same technology, but in your opinion, is such a set-up currently technologically feasible?

  7. Gerald, thanks for your feedback and it's great to get because it's hard to know what people are interested in reading here.

    While I want to get back to giving more of the odd Kindle tips, I do get distracted by the interesting glut of new ereaders being offered, and while I love my DX especially, I'm always interested in anything that might offer even more.

    Glad to know you enjoy that too.

    - Andrys

  8. Batman!
    I have to put my reply into two parts because I went over 4,096 characters :-)

    About wishing that one of the current studies might be also about exploring their value for *learning outcomes* - that's what I meant by "studying the relative effectiveness of the learning process using an e-reader" which is one of the goals in some of these, from what I've read.

    I'm very interested in that since one of the things I was involved with in my last job, with UC Berkeley, was a comparison of different modes of learning, which included online self-study, online with an online coach, online with some in-person meetings, and in-person only.

    Much depended on the person. Did they need to be 'shown' by someone else or did they learn best just by reading. Full time help? or part time coaching, etc. Some have to 'see' something done, others have to do it, hands-on.

    You mentioned "...the Kindle needs to serve as a conduit between teaching styles and learning styles."

    Not very different from what a textbook in hard covers would need to do but again depending on how the individual user learns best.

    " my experience, relying on professors’ willingness to voluntarily drastically change their methods might be a bit optimistic ;-)"

    I'll say. Any professors they choose for an expensive study ought to at least not set up roadblocks out of their own preference not to have that particular study. What a waste of money otherwise.

    As far as mixed classes (books/e-readers), 'equitable' education comes from a teacher willing to use the books between hard covers and their assigned pages (for that edition) and to use the books in electronic sets as teaching AIDs rather than as something to be fought.

    So if they have a study of a device using location numbers (for the reasons we've been given), then for God's sake, they should assign location numbers as well as page numbers. Why set up a lose-lose situation when it's unnecessary. This is, to my mind, an artifical barrier set up by people who don't want to change the parameters of what they've known and are comfortable with -- where they are 'expert.'

    "It’s here that I believe the speed-of-annotation issues, “flipping” problems, etc., cause the greatest difficulties for classroom use of the Kindle."

    Sure. And it's the ability to go 5 or 10% ahead to skim and see what was there that was in the Kindle 1 and taken away in the other two Kindles. That was not only short-sighted but dumb. Determined by a non-reader.

    On the other hand, as a student, *I* would feel extremely hampered being one of those who could not 'search' my book quickly for a word, name, place or concept. I would feel at a disadvantage not having all the highlighting and notes I took be immediately viewable after I typed or highlighted a passage not only in one accessible (to me) webplace, all of them in easily readable type as Kindle users have. In addition, I would feel bad not to have ALL the results of a search I'm interested in show up on the Kindle itself, one after another, within the context of their 'locations' sequentially as they exist in the book.

    I would feel lousy not having a dictionary always at hand for words I'm reading. Why is it inequitable only in one way? The way we're all used to ? Why should only one be the way it is with the other?

    What *I* want is a unit that can take an external fold-up keyboard that's more useful, so I can type quickly. I type about 120 wpm on tested electric and about 85 on old manuals. So I do know how frustrating the physical Kindle boards are (and the same with virtual keyboards).

    The Kindle 1 keyboard is bad enough. The Kindle 2 is ridiculous, so close together and shallow-dipped and I can't tell which key I'm on when I'm pressing on it and looking. The Kindle 2 keyboard is the worst I've ever used.

    The DX one is, for me, far more useable (but relative to a computer keyboard not good, of course).
    An external keyboard would make all the difference.

    - part 2 in the next note -

  9. To Batman, #2 of 2 of a long-winded reply

    Re the studies you want to see, I don't see how one can get clear cut results. People tend to learn differently. It would prove only what happened with those people. Some learn quickly with visual cues, some want to step through things logically and not be distracted.

    I'm an online-learner by nature but unless the teacher is very skilled, I can fall asleep in a class where the lecturer is going too slowly or be annoyed if they're spending most of their time being entertaining.

    I actually don't think there is a way to know if a way of assimilating information is better -in general-. The e-readers are important only in that they are new, they can provide less expensive (long-term) ways of getting information out to more students, and they can save a lot of paper and a lot of student backs.

    And the e-ink ones are incredibly easy on the eyes. I can have blurred eyes after some hours of white glaring at me from the computer or laptop. They unblur when I start reading the Kindle.

    The most important question is whether e-readers would prove generally difficult to learn with, for most people. For some, sure. For others, no. I think if you're capable of learning, you'll do so using the tools you're given while being frustrated that not any one tool can give you everything you want in a learning situation.

    A lot of people are stuck in ways they know and don't explore how to use well what is there, wishing only for what was.

    At the same time, unless you identify what works against a person being able to learn or work quickly, the tool won't be as good as it should be.

    But one thing would be to get rid of attitudes that the old way is the only way and that a new way must be perfect before it's used. We'll get relative findings with the unknown human factor - some will always need to learn a specific way, some will find extremely useful some other ways.

    I used to teach computers to execs on their spare time and out of sight of their staff. The most intelligent people I've met had severe learning barriers to overcome re computer workings due ONLY to their always previously having been on TOP of things and knowing more than others.

    To have to start fresh with something others "below you" are comfortable with but which is totally alien to your experience and way of thinking is so scary for some that they set up the most amazing obstacles, beating up on themselves even, until they realize they don't have to START by being at the top of their game.

    I was always amazed they felt so bad about coming up against something different but knowing they needed to because the world was going there.

    But if they were able to relax and accept that they might not understand immediately (as they felt, wrongly, they should) and accept that they might even get something wrong at first while learning, then they were fine.

  10. Andrys,

    Well, I appreciate your devoting that many characters to your response, and I’ll try to not consume that many here :-). Your points are well taken, and I think we’re largely in agreement on the larger points. I hope it’s clear that I don’t consider myself one of the ones who would try to perpetuate the “good old way” just because of having some position of authority. I’m not at all averse to change; in fact I welcome the opportunity to expand my mindset, but I lean toward trying to assure that change is not undertaken just because it’s possible, but rather because there’s some added value to be gained. I’d also like to add that though I think you probably know this already, let me explicitly state that although we don’t always come down 100% on the same side of a particular issue, I appreciate that you never make it come off as adversarial, but instead always engage in thought-provoking dialogue. So in closing, in honor of your upcoming visit to the land of the Pharaohs, “Skokrn wa maa el salama sadyki” [no promises as to idiomatic correctness
    ;-) ].

  11. Batman,
    No, I wasn't clear. Your part was when problems have to be identified to make the new tool a better one. Which you do.

    The more negative stuff was the professor who was so resistant, just to start, and is in control of a class study despite that.

    I don't remember our having particularly different takes on anything - maybe different emphases. It's fun for me to read your thoughts in reaction to what's reported. It would be so deadly otherwise.

    Re the note about pushing common work assignments to the Kindle, unfortunately it has no WiFi component, which is needed for internal networks.

    Nevertheless, Kindles can be cabled via USB to any computer and seen as a separate drive mapping, and people can just pick up their assignments that way, with all the lesson parts in a server sub-directory.

    But they'd be all thrown together with everything else in the Kindle's 'documents' folder. Someone would need to do some html work to link the parts of the assignment together if that was important, and it's almost surely not worth the work.

    The individual parts can be given to everyone that way and they have the same reading materials.

    But we're talking about capabilities right now and there'll be so many changes within a year, I imagine, with all the readers!

  12. Thanks for the article. I hadn't realized how little reporting went into it. Don't blame the professional media for this tactic, however. The Princetonian is written and edited by students, not professional journalists. No professional publication worth a dime would let a reporter get away with this. Except the tabloids.

  13. Richard,
    Actually, I do blame the professional newspaper writers for reading the same student newspaper story I did and then making a couple of weeks of ridiculous generalized headlines out of the school newspaper's interview of 2 students and two professors -- not noting for readers that the "students'" quotes they used were from one person while then making pronouncements about the failure of the program and attributing quotes to more than one person (which takes creativity).

    The same thing is happening with The Guardian story about Amazon's int'l book pricing being 40% higher, picked up by many newspapers in a few days, almost none of which bothered to check the product pricing pages for the specific $-amounts mentioned.

    Taking a range of pricing and picking only the highest $-amount in that range to make a general comparison statement against the lower amount of another country is something that makes me distrust newspapers even more these days.

    So newspapers have been swallowing whole the summary of a writer about his phone interview in which the actual quotes did not match his story of 40% 'more' charged generally to int'l countries.

    In Australia (where The Age did the same thing), an author-society leader wants the member writers to avoid Amazon on the basis of the numbers given.

    I want newspapers to survive, but with the kind of reporting I'm seeing, I begin to wonder...

    Thanks for the feedback and different perspective.


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