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Princeton Students: Kindle 'Disappointing, Difficult to Use'

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When the University announced its Kindle e-reader pilot program last May, administrators seemed cautiously optimistic that the e-readers would both be sustainable and serve as a valuable academic tool. But less than two weeks after 50 students received the free Kindle DX e-readers, many of them said they were dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the devices.

On Wednesday, the University revealed that students in three courses — WWS 325: Civil Society and Public Policy, WWS 555A: U.S. Policy and Diplomacy in the Middle East, and CLA 546: Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome — were each given a new Kindle DX containing their course readings for the semester. The University had announced last May that it was partnering with Amazon.com, founded by Princeton alum Jeff Bezos, to provide students and faculty members with the e-readers as part of a sustainability initiative to conserve paper.

But though they acknowledged some benefits of the new technology, many students and faculty in the three courses said they found the Kindles disappointing and difficult to use.

“I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” said Aaron Horvath ’10, a student in Civil Society and Public Policy. “It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate.”

Horvath said that using the Kindle has required completely changing the way he completes his coursework.

“Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs,” he explained. “All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless.”

Wilson School professor Stan Katz, who teaches Horvath’s class, said he is interested in whether he “can teach as effectively in using this as in using books and E-Reserve material and in whether students can use this effectively,” adding that “the only way to find out is to try it.”

One of Katz’ main concerns is whether students can do close reading of the texts with the new device, he said.

“I require a very close reading of texts. I encourage students to mark up texts, and … I expect them to underline and to highlight texts,” Katz explained. “The question is whether you can do them as effectively with a Kindle as with paper.”

Katz added that had to confront the issue early when he transitioned from using familiar texts for teaching.

“I have all of my books marked up,” Katz said. “Either I use my own annotations, or I take the time, an immense amount of time” to annotate with the Kindle.

Katz also said he has little incentive to move his annotations to the Kindle, explaining that he heard the University won’t use the Kindle next year and adding that he finds the device “hard to use.”

Katz also added that the absence of page numbers in the Kindle makes it more difficult for students to cite sources consistently.

“The Kindle doesn’t give you page numbers; it gives you location numbers. They have to do that because the material is reformatted,” Katz said. He noted that while the location numbers are “convenient for reading,” they are “meaningless for anyone working from analog books.”

Though using a Kindle is voluntary, no one has opted out of using a Kindle in Katz’ class, so he has permitted his students to use location numbers in their written work for the course.

Should students from any of the courses choose to not take part in the pilot program — called “Toward Print-Less and Paper-Less Courses: Pilot Amazon Kindle Program” — they will be allowed to print their readings.

While the Kindle may hinder the reading experience of some, others may benefit from the device’s unique electronic display.

Classics professor Harriet Flower, who teaches Religion and Magic in Ancient Rome, said in an e-mail that the Kindle “is very easy on the eye,” adding that she could “read for longer without [her] eyes feeling tired.”

But Rachel George ’10, a student in Katz’ class, said in an e-mail that she has found it “a little difficult to adjust to the e-reader.”

“A huge benefit to the Kindle is having large quantities of reading available at your fingertips and not having to print and lug around books and articles,” she said. “Some disadvantages are the necessity to charge the Kindle and the impossibility of ‘flipping through’ a book.”

George also said the annotation software was “useful but not as easy or ‘organic’ feeling as taking notes on paper.”

“For some people,” she explained, “electronic reading can never replace the functionality and ‘feel’ of reading off paper.”