Higher Education's Tech Dilemmas

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USA Today reports a side of educational technology that's well known to specialist researchers but doesn't often reach the mass media. Electronic readers and textbooks, while an interesting concept and potentially lucrative for publishers, so far aren't meeting student needs:

A host of research over the past decade has shown that even the option to click hyperlinks to related material can create confusion and weaken understanding. One study found reading comprehension declined as the number of clickable links increased. A 2005 review by researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, of 38 studies found "very little support" for the idea that all those links to additional information enrich the reader's experience. A 2007 study published in Media Psychology raised similar concerns about add-ons such as sound and animation.

It's perfectly true that dedicated readers (like Kindle) and general-purpose tablets (like the iPad) are relatively new. Some companies are offering more specialized versions designed for education. But so far the usability guru Jakob Nielsen reported last month:

The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. However, the difference between the two devices was not statistically significant because of the data's fairly high variability.

Thus, the only fair conclusion is that we can't say for sure which device offers the fastest reading speed. In any case, the difference would be so small that it wouldn't be a reason to buy one over the other.

But we can say that tablets still haven't beaten the printed book: the difference between Kindle and the book was significant at the p<.01 level, and the difference between iPad and the book was marginally significant at p=.06.

Potentially, the small difference can mean a lot of lost time for a student or other heavy reader. And it isn't clear that the latest Kindle version is a major improvement in usability. Education's real problem with readers is the dismaying fact that mass information technology out of the box was not developed for education.

Microsoft Office is great value at academic discounts. But Word has become a mini-desktop publishing and collaboration program for corporate users, Excel's statistical analysis and graphing are limited, while its mainstream financial power is more impressive. And the bulleted style of PowerPoint, while widely used, has inspired a classic of academic backlash.The big customers remain the suits. Software designed for education serves a smaller market with more features. Nota Bene is an impressive word processing program that doesn't have to be customized for academic use as Word does -- I've had versions since the 1980s -- but even the student version of its flagship Lingua Workstation sells for $299.00. My friend Edward Mendelson, a leading software reviewer as well as a professor of literature at Columbia, still likes the long-orphaned WordPerfect for DOS enough to maintain an excellent site for keeping it alive through new generations of the Windows operating system.

And there's another side to academic technology. At least in the humanities and social sciences, skilled use of Google and specialized databases is often in limbo between librarians and teaching faculty. (Google itself is a brilliant Stanford Computer Science Dept. project that has morphed into the world's most profitable advertising agency.) I was recently interviewed by Times (London) Higher Education on these issues here.

For all that colleges and universities did to help create the information technology industry, higher education has turned from parent to stepchild.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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