Kindle pilot results highlight possibilities for paper reduction

Managers of Princeton University's semester-long pilot of the Amazon KindleDX electronic reader are calling the project a success, with results showing that student participants reduced the amount of paper they used to print course readings by almost 50 percent. However, e-readers must be significantly improved to have the same value in a teaching environment as traditional paper texts, participants said.

Students and faculty surveyed this month at the conclusion of the pilot expressed appreciation for the e-reader's portability -- and the fact that it almost eliminated the printing and photocopying they did for their pilot courses -- but they also said the ability to highlight directly on traditional text, to take notes and flip pages for ease in navigation suffers in the e-reader.

"With enhancements to their annotation capability, display of page numbers, and content organization, e-readers and related technologies may help contain and ultimately reduce the amount of printing done by students at Princeton and elsewhere," said Serge Goldstein, the University's associate chief information officer and director of Academic Services, who is one of the pilot project's managers.

"They may make it possible to eliminate paper as the primary medium for delivering textual materials to students," he said.

With hopes of assisting industry with the refinement of e-readers, and providing useful information to other academic institutions considering the devices, information and data from the one-time pilot have been compiled on an Office of Information Technology (OIT) website.

Princeton launched its pilot in the fall to help determine if e-readers can reduce the use of paper at the University without adversely affecting the classroom experience. Fifty students in three courses agreed to participate in the voluntary project -- titled "Toward Print-Less and Paper-Less Courses: Pilot Amazon Kindle Program" -- managed by OIT and the Princeton University Library in cooperation with Amazon.

Pilot participants enrolled in an undergraduate course on civil society, a graduate-level course on diplomacy and a graduate-level classics course on ancient Rome had all their course readings loaded on their e-readers, and many opted to have additional readings for nonpilot courses put on the devices. The pilot ended with the close of the fall semester at the end of January, and print and survey data compiled in early February assessed for each student not only printing for the e-reader course, but the paper they printed for all their courses during the fall semester.

OIT compared the findings with different types of control data for each class, depending on whether the course was taught in previous years, and whether there were users and non-users of e-readers in the same course.

Each student in the diplomacy course printed on average 962 pages for all courses he or she took during the semester, compared to the average of 1,826 for each student who did not receive an e-reader because he or she was auditing the pilot course. Each participant in the undergraduate policy class printed an average of 762 pages throughout the semester, compared to the 1,373 pages that OIT calculated each student from the same class printed for all classes he or she took last year.

And while no control data were available for the classics course because the course had not been offered previously, OIT was able to do a comparison of printed pages for users and non-users of the e-reader in a fourth course not included in the pilot. About one-fourth of students enrolled in a nonpilot, graduate-level policy course were using the Kindle devices associated with a pilot course, and each printed an average of 570 sheets of paper, compared to the 1,508 printed by a classmate who wasn't using an e-reader.

Graduate student Tabari Dossett, who received an e-reader after enrolling in the pilot course "U.S. Policy and Diplomacy in the Middle East," said, "I only printed out two articles for this course all semester." He explained that the only reason he printed the articles was because they were assigned late in the semester and were not loaded on the Kindle.

"Using this Kindle has made me a lot more conscious of my paper use," Dossett added. "As a result of this experience, I have decided to not only keep my Kindle, but I have begun to use the Kindle for class readings for this semester. I have begun uploading readings from my computer onto the Kindle, which has also cut down on my printing hundreds of pages of readings so far this semester." Participating students and faculty members in the pilot courses received a free device that they could keep.

Sophomore Eddie Skolnick, who was enrolled in the undergraduate course "Civil Society and Public Policy," said he had a less positive experience with the e-reader.

"I found the device difficult to use and not conducive to academic purposes," he said, and added, "But I can see how it can be used for pleasure reading."

About 65 percent of the participants in the pilot said they would not buy another e-reader now if theirs was broken. Almost all the participants said they were interested in following the technology to its next stages, because they think a device that works well in academia would be worth having.

Students and faculty asked by OIT to participate in two surveys during the course of the pilot -- one at midterm and the other in the first week of spring semester, after the end of the pilot -- commented on the top things they liked about the KindleDX, and also their top five suggestions for improving the devices. Some students also offered comments in focus groups conducted by an outside consultant in the first two weeks of February.

What they liked best about the devices was:

  • the battery life, the wireless connection and the portability of the e-reader;
  • the fact that all the course reading was on one device;
  • the ability to search for content; and
  • the legibility of the screen, including the fact it could be read in full sunlight.

The top five suggestions students had for improving e-readers were:

  1. improving the ability to highlight and annotate PDF files;
  2. improving the annotation tools;
  3. providing a folder structure to keep similar readings together;
  4. improving the highlighting function; and
  5. improving the navigation within and between documents on the reader (including having more than one document open at the same time for comparison).

"The Kindle was not ideal for my class," said Stanley Katz, director of the University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and lecturer with the rank of professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He taught the civil society course and said the difficulty of the annotation feature and the lack of a highlighting capacity "were serious limitations."

"We were also hampered by our inability to move from one place to another in the text during class discussion," Katz said. "On the other hand, we were grateful to have all of the course readings available in a single, portable device, and the mid-course arrival of software that made it possible to read the course assignments on a PC was very welcome."

Professor of Classics Harriet Flower, who taught the pilot course "Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome,” said it was almost always possible to teach in the same way using the Kindle as in any other seminar she has taught.

"The Kindle would be better for an academic setting if the PDF format worked more effectively," she pointed out. "It is a great advantage always to have all the texts available without carrying too much around. We did not try to go completely paperless by sending handouts for student presentations to the Kindles of classmates, which would be a next step in saving paper."

Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel and Egypt and visiting professor in the Wilson School, taught the policy and diplomacy course and said his students did not use the Kindle in his classroom.

"Its portability is its greatest asset," he said. "PDFs were a problem, however, fixable only through a time-consuming process undertaken by the pilot project coordinator, and I found the highlighting and page recall functions less than satisfactory."

Janet Temos, director of the Educational Technologies Center in Academic Services at OIT and one of the pilot's other project managers, pointed out that no one opted out of the pilot because many said they felt that testing the technology was very important. The pilot was intended to test the viability of e-readers in general in terms of paper reduction and teaching, not specifically the KindleDX device.

"The final survey focused on questions about features that are proposed by all the e-readers that have been promised for delivery this year, including the Kindle," Temos said. "Since we began the pilot in September, two dozen or more new devices have been announced."

The paper-reduction figures show that the devices do have potential in terms of sustainability, but one other goal of the pilot was to assess how the devices could benefit higher education more broadly.

"There would be a greater benefit realized if the devices could develop a better way to deliver the ubiquitous PDF document, which is used by many journals and libraries to deliver documents, and is the common format in which dissertations and theses are published and read by faculty," Temos said. "Some students said they spent a considerable amount of time printing PDF documents during the semester, and hardly ever referred back to them once the semester was over. I don't expect that is unusual."

Princeton was one of six colleges and universities that participated 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 was sponsored by OIT, the University Library and the High Meadows Foundation, which has contributed to a fund supporting sustainability efforts at the University.

For more information about the goals and logistics of the pilot e-reader project, visit the OIT pilot website.