Alexandria Online

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Survey on the Future of Reading

I gave my colleagues at The Episcopal Academy a survey about print and electronic teaching material. A few questions pertaining to their personal reading and teaching preferences were thrown in too. I wanted to see how they themselves were reading, how they were teaching and how they thought their practices might change in the future because of changes in reading technology.

Schools are conservative institutions -- conservators, in fact, of our culture. Private schools are more conservative than public schools, and Episcopal is more conservative than many private schools. My colleagues displayed their conservation instincts well in their responses to the question below:

If you add the "Strongly Agree" to the "Agree" segment, you can see that almost everyone wants to keep a few printed books around, including me. I will never give up reading my Oxford Classical Texts They are beautiful! See:

But then take a look at the progressive streak below. According to the faculty, our kids will miss something if we don't include electronic materials in their education:

Not so conservative after all, are we? Comfortable with new technology, but respectful of the simple, elegant technology of the codex? They want it both ways:

Only a few folks could disagree with that question. The faculty are crying out for a mixed experience for our students.

Now here's the one that surprised me the most: many of our faculty see fundamental change on the horizon:

If you add those who agree to those who strongly agree, almost half the faculty see printed books being put out on the curb like the old library card catalogs in just twenty years. Personally, I see print books and electronic books coexisting indefinitely, so I was alarmed at this revolutionary outlook.

Twenty years may seem like a long time in the world of technology, but if you read Books in the Digital Age by John B. Thompson, you will be most impressed by the disasters the publishing industry suffered almost twenty years ago, in the early '90s, when publishers tried to peddle books on CD. The technology was there but no one wanted to buy it. That disaster stifled e-book development until the advent of the Kindle, twenty years later. It took that long for e-books to improve enough to compete with printed books.

Although no one knows for sure, it is a pretty good bet that over ten million but under fifty million e-books have been sold in just the past few years. And the pace is picking up, not leveling off. Nonetheless, owners of iPads and Kindles are still buying print books too. (Wall Street Journal, 4.30/2010, "Buyers of E-Books Still Like Print Too, Survey Shows") A huge change has already occurred, but how much farther will it go?

According to my survey, our faculty are pretty bi-technological. They mostly read their newspapers online and most develop their own electronic teaching material and store it for future use. They often collaborate with colleagues to develop this material. A third of them read e-books as well as print. They are comfortable dealing with non-print resources and believe that reading will soon move away from print.

But check out their own personal preferences below:

Those teachers who think -- for now at least -- that they will always prefer print over e-text may be the same folks who think print will survive for at least twenty more years. And if they think that, then they are right. Why would publishers stop selling something that they have always sold successfully and is still preferred by a majority of its customers? Educational publishers would have to change teachers' minds and come out with e-textbooks that beat print books hands down.
Be aware, however, that we are dealing with an unusual demographic at The Academy. Most of us read more than one book a year, which puts us in a tiny minority. If e-books can change that at all, well ... it would be nice for us readers to have more company. The life of the mind is grossly undervalued.

The complete results are available to you online by clicking here.


  1. What interesting findings.

    I am not surprised by the results. I think most faculty see great value in the addition of some electronic and online resources, but most also recognize the unique contribution to the learning process a physical volume provides. Where I think this will really go in interesting places is when those physical books themselves are electronic. Imagine a textbook, with seemingly physical pages or things to touch, that is actually an electronic device.

    We have just completed our Kindle pilot and the students who participated were almost unanimous in their opinion that e-readers lack a physcial connection with the reading that is essential for learning. They need to see images with the text; they need to touch the page with their pen to take notes; they need to be able to visualize the page in the book when they are recalling information. These things need to be incoroporated into the electronic texts and the hardware that will support them.

    My prediction, then, is that the book and the electronic device will eventually morph into one thing that is both a book and an e-reader.

  2. The survey that you have carried out is great and i thing your results are much accurate. this should be shared at Martinville University where students can get access to it and also do get encouragement to carry out such researches.