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E-Book News: Ball State Tests Devices in Classroom

Students Looking to Improve Devices for Reading E-Books, Study Finds
Take 91 college students at Ball State University and have them compare e-books to textbooks during a semester of study. The result? A dozen recommendations to improve e-books for the classroom. The research is now being shared with Thomson Multimedia Inc. and Gemstar-TV Guide International.

Graduate students in Professor Richard Bellaver's course tested their ability to learn from a book converted into e-book formats. Students studied from a color e-book, a black-and-white e-book and an original hard-copy text.

The researchers hoped to find out how using e-books compared with using textbooks, and how e-book use affected students' learning. Although the researchers started with the assumption that e-books would be just as easy to use as textbooks, they soon found that students had various complaints about the performance of the e-book devices. But students who used e-books did just as well on quizzes as those who used printed texts.

The "Human Factors" class split into three sample groups, each taking several rounds of tests. Bellaver and researcher Jay Gillette, director of the university's Human Factors Institute, reviewed 543 quizzes. Their conclusion: There was barely a difference in student test scores. "The students could learn just as well on e-books," said Bellaver, who is the associate director of Ball State's Center for Information and Communication Sciences. The report is available online.

Ball State University purchased the e-books for the iCommunication initiative, which is funded with a $20 million Lilly Endowment grant. Thomson Multimedia provided hardware for the project, while Gemstar provided software. Research is a key component of the initiative, offering Ball State students a place to learn about and produce information, entertainment, classroom, and other communications content using the latest technology.

Navigating through digital texts was one of the e-book users' biggest complaints. They found moving from page to page "tedious." They also found it difficult to find specific chapters in texts and to find particular words. With certain e-book devices, students were easily able to change settings, like font size and screen contrasts, but most students didn't find those features terribly useful. The researchers found that the students were most interested in features that let them use the e-books the same way they would use printed volumes -- for instance, an easily used feature that allowed them to highlight text.

Bellaver, a telecommunications expert with more than 35 years experience, believes there is some tweaking that could be done to make e-books easier to use. Despite the setbacks in the industry, including the shutdown of electronic imprints at Random House and AOL Time Warner Inc., Bellaver says e-books are viable for academic markets.

Still, students suggested that the e-book formats could be improved-especially with less tedious features and enlarged screen size. Well-used features in the e-books included highlighting, something most students do routinely in hard-copy texts.

David Ferguson, director of the iCommunication initiative, said the research possibilities for e-books on campus are unlimited. "We're planning to use e-books in a live theater production this fall and exploring uses for them as sports playbooks and media guides, as well as instructional materials for classes this year," he said.

Ball State has long-standing strategic partnerships to provide research for companies producing innovative products.

Among Bellaver's many recommendations to Thomson and Gemstar:
* Change the size of the screen to 6 inches by 8.5 inches for easier readability
* Enhance function features including a drag-and-drop option and spell check feature
* Make the menu selections more descriptive of the tasks they perform

Mr. Bellaver says that he will convey some of the complaints, along with suggestions and recommendations, to Thomson and Gemstar. He also plans to conduct more studies and hopes to publish the results in User Experience, the journal of the Usability Professionals' Association.

He still has high hopes for e-book technology, despite students' complaints. "My feeling is that this is a viable repository," he says. "For a student to be able to store four or five books, along with reference tools, and have them be refreshed every semester -- that could be valuable."

Ninety-one Ball State students were involved in the study; 40 of them used textbooks, 24 used black-and-white e-books, and 27 used color e-books. Several students said that they thought the e-books adversely affected the amount of information that they absorbed, and some students switched from e-books to textbooks after they complained of eyestrain.

But whatever the complaints about the performance of the devices, there seemed to be little difference between the performance of e-book users and textbook users. Several quizzes were administered during the study, each with a maximum score of 50. The textbook users earned an average of 29 points per quiz, while the black-and-white and color e-book users earned average scores of 28.9 and 28.5, respectively.

The researchers also put the e-books through a battery of endurance tests, such as exposing the devices to subzero temperatures and putting them in high-pressure chambers. "It was probably overkill there, but we wanted to see if they would survive a walk across campus in winter or a day on the beach," Mr. Bellaver says. Sooner or later -- sometimes within minutes, sometimes days -- all of the devices worked after they had been returned to a normal environment. "We found that the devices are pretty tough," Mr. Bellaver says. "I told the students, 'Don't break too many.'" But only one device had to be replaced.