Last updated: September 6, 2010 10:19 am

E-books fail the classroom test

Students at Darden business school using Kindle


Business school students give Kindle the cold shoulder

Business schools pride themselves on being ahead of the curve when it comes to management theory and innovation. But their record is considerably less impressive when it comes to the implementation of cutting-edge technology such as e-book readers, Apple’s iPad and social networking, where students continue to outpace their tutors.

So expectations were high a year ago when seven US colleges, including two business schools, University of Washington Foster School of Business and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, signed up with Amazon to test the online retailer’s large-screen Kindle DX e-book reader.

Some even thought that with students able to load class materials and textbooks easily on to the 10-ounce device, the era of lugging textbooks around campus might finally be over.

Of the seven schools that participated in the Kindle pilot, Darden worked most closely with Amazon to convert many of the case studies it uses in first-year classes to the Kindle format, and selected 62 students and 10 faculty members for the pilot.

But while students liked some of the Kindle’s features, such as the big screen and the ability to store hundreds of case studies and books on the device, most were unhappy overall with the user experience, says Michael Koenig, Darden’s director of MBA operations.

Although the device allowed students to highlight text and make notes, many complained that it was difficult to use these features and said the Kindle was more suitable for casual reading than for the classroom.

In fact, by the second semester, most students had abandoned their Kindles, choosing instead to read case studies on their laptop or on paper. In a mid-term survey, the pilot scheme participants were asked: “Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming Darden MBA student?

“A total of 75-80 per cent answered ‘no’,” says Mr Koenig. Kindle-using students were then asked: “Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming MBA student as a personal reading device?” A total of 90-95 per cent said “yes”.

“What that says to me is that Amazon created a very well-designed consumer device for purchasing and reading digital books, magazines and newspapers,” says Mr Koenig. However, he believes it is not yet ready to take a lead role in the Darden business school classroom.

But Mr Koenig insists the trial was informative. “We learnt a lot and are much more prepared as a top-tier business school to face the complex challenges of digital content distribution for all future Darden students.’’

For the moment he believes e-book readers are too rigid for use in the classrooms of Darden, where the Socratic method and case-based pedagogy mean students must be nimble.

“You must be highly engaged in the classroom every day,’’ he says, adding that the Kindle is “not flexible enough ... It could be clunky. You can’t move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared to the paper alternatives.”

Daniel Turner, associate dean of the masters and executive education programmes at Foster, expresses similar views. “It’s not quite ready for prime time in higher education.”

Meanwhile, some business schools, particularly those that are smaller and more innovative, have switched their attention to Apple’s iPad launched this year.

Among them, Grenoble’s Ecole de Management in France will select 40 students this month to be part of an “innovation” laboratory at the heart of the school, aimed at testing, among other innovations, the pedagogical advantages of the iPad.

“The iPad is perfectly suited in terms of its vast experimental learning capacity,” says Béatrice Nerson, deputy director at Grenoble. “We want to imagine new ways of making use of it.”

Grenoble plans to use the iPad to develop applications, make more intuitive use of its e-book reader capabilities, give access to online classes and distance learning and to provide access to faculty publications via the e-book store. For the past 22 years, Grenoble students have been asked to have a PC. “The question now is to find out whether the iPad will replace PCs,” says Marc Humbert, head of the Innovation Laboratory. “We may find that the iPad is less ‘intrusive’ than a PC, which, when open in the classroom, is like a barrier between the student and faculty.”

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