Pilot of Amazon's Kindle e-reader launched with fall semester

Readings on civil society, diplomacy in the Middle East and ancient Rome have made their way from traditional paper pages to the digital screen for an estimated 50 students who have enrolled in classes selected for Princeton University's pilot of the Amazon KindleDX electronic reader.

Three courses using these readings have been selected for participation in the semester-long pilot to help determine if e-readers can reduce the use of paper at Princeton without adversely affecting the classroom experience. The University in May announced that the Office of Information Technology (OIT) and the Princeton University Library were working with Amazon in the program, titled "Toward Print-Less and Paper-Less Courses: Pilot Amazon Kindle Program."

The library and OIT chose the courses from among 20 over the summer, based in part on the unique characteristics that each course's readings present for exploring the e-reader's capabilities:

  • the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs/American studies undergraduate course "Civil Society and Public Policy," taught by Stanley Katz, director of the University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and lecturer with the rank of professor at the Wilson School;
  • the Wilson School graduate-level course "U.S. Policy and Diplomacy in the Middle East," taught by Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and a visiting professor in the Wilson School; and
  • the classics graduate-level course "Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome," taught by Harriet Flower, professor of classics.

"I am especially interested in the application of new technology to teaching," Katz said, "and for me the opportunity to participate in the Kindle experiment is a chance to see if I can enhance the student learning experience with the e-reader. The question I start off with is whether, once the novelty wears off, students will find this more attractive to use than its analog counterpart, or whether it will turn out to be more a nuisance than an enhancement. Stay tuned!"

Katz previously has taught his civil society course relying exclusively on materials drawn from monographs and from published book-length collections of essays, which are now available in e-book format.

In addition to class size and availability of readings, general selection criteria for the courses included their heavy reliance on "e-reserve" material for most of the required reading on the syllabi. The library provided to the e-reader pilot administrators a list of the top courses that put digitized readings on electronic reserve for students at the library.

"We targeted this sort of reading because we already knew that multiple printings of e-reserves contribute significantly to paper use in student printing clusters at Princeton," said Janet Temos, director of the Educational Technologies Center in Academic Services at OIT and one of the pilot's project managers.

OIT has estimated that 50 million sheets of paper were printed at the University last year at a cost of $5 million. More than 10 million sheets were printed in student computing clusters, much of that generated by printing e-reserves.

"If, through the use of e-readers, we can cut down that printing by even 1 percent, we will have more than made up for what was spent on this pilot," said Serge Goldstein, one of the pilot project's directors and the University's associate chief information officer and director of academic services.


The Kindle electronic reader (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon.com)

Kurtzer's course uses a balance of e-book readings and those that students would previously print from PDFs or receive by purchasing diplomatic case studies from online sources, while Flower explained that very few textbooks are available for the ancient readings for her course. This provides a unique experiment for testing an e-reader with more than 80 PDF files that had to be specifically sized and formatted for the Kindle DX device, considering that the e-reader will not allow the same text size adjustments or page navigation as for textbooks.

"I am interested to see whether the Kindle reader will make the readings for a graduate seminar, which are drawn from a wide variety of sources, more easily accessible and portable for students, both inside and outside the classroom," Flower said. "In addition, the Kindle offers opportunities for students of classics to experience reading in a manner that is closer to that practiced in antiquity: that is to say, without pages or the codex format. The Kindle is much closer in format to a papyrus roll than to a modern book."

Readings suitable for an e-reader were prepared or purchased for each course over the summer, and the pilot was announced to course participants as enrollment closed for each course.

Students who enrolled in a selected pilot course received an e-mail over the summer informing them that the class had been selected for the pilot, making them aware that participation for those enrolled in the class is voluntary, and offering a schedule of training sessions to help them begin the year with an understanding of how to use the devices.

The e-readers, which are free to the participants in the pilot and become their property upon completing the course, were loaded with the course readings and delivered to students as they returned to campus beginning in mid-September. Each course in the pilot met for the first time the week of Sept. 21, and students have begun using the devices for reading.

"I am interested to see whether transportability and ease of access to the reading material result in the students doing more of the required reading," Kurtzer said of his diplomacy course. "Indeed, the question is whether 'liberating' students from a fixed reading location will help their reading habits." 

The project managers emphasized that the goal of determining the effectiveness of teaching with an electronic reader is more important than the testing of a particular e-reader device. Therefore, students won't be encouraged to make assessments about using the e-reader until the end of the fall term in January.

"This will allow the students to have completed the course readings, and have experienced interacting with their peers in weekly seminar discussions," Temos said. "As most readings will be delivered in a way that will be new to most students, we want to allow them adequate time to become comfortable with their Kindles, before rushing to judgment about the devices."

The project managers also hope that students will take the full term to reflect on how the pilot courses compare to previous classroom experiences, considering that all the students in the pilot have had at least one year's experience in attending classes at Princeton or other universities.

"For these reasons, we will not be collecting assessments, unless students provide voluntary feedback, while classes are in session," Temos said. "A formal assessment will be conducted at the conclusion of the pilot."

Results of the University's pilot survey will be released early in the spring semester. They will be made available to the public with the goal of helping manufacturers of e-readers design devices that can help Princeton and other institutions balance sustainability and effective teaching.

"Although Princeton does not endorse any specific device, we hope that the pilot will help companies develop e-readers that are attractive to our students and faculty," Goldstein said.

Princeton is one of six colleges and universities participating in projects testing the KindleDX e-reader, joining Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Reed College and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

At Princeton, the Amazon KindleDX pilot project is sponsored by OIT, the University library and the High Meadows Foundation.

The High Meadows Foundation gift of term funds over four years was given to the University to fund initiatives that support goals set forth in the "Research, education and civic engagement" section of Princeton's Sustainability Plan, which was announced in February of 2008. It is one of the plan's three main areas, along with greenhouse gas emissions reduction and resource conservation.

The library digitized content for the e-reader pilot, while OIT converted some content into e-books and prepared others for delivery, and a committee consisting of representatives from OIT and the library set the goals for the pilot. 

For more information, OIT has developed a website outlining the goals and logistics of the pilot e-reader project.