Mobile Learning

Can I read an entire book on my iPhone (and enjoy it)?

Mobile learning has been promoted as a massive up and coming phenomenon now for so long that you could be forgiven for being cynical; uptake for educational purposes has been very slow. However the devices and applications are getting so sophisticated that I’ve come round to the view that before long many learners will be carrying out significant parts of their studies using smartphones – and that we need to start preparing for that now.

In Japan more people access the Web from phones than from PCs (see Techcrunch article) and there are reports (see eg Wired) that a large proportion of Japanese are content with just a cellphone and don’t even want a PC. I find web browsing, even with the iPhone’s excellent user interface, clunky. You can zoom in on parts of the screen with ease but all that moving about to try to get to grips with the entire contents of a web page is tiresome.

Sites formated for mobile devices like that of the BBC are far more satisfactory, and we are currently doing something similar for course websites at the Open University. This is great for administrative aspects of courses such as checking your exam results or course calendar but much of our learning content is in the form of long texts. I am particularly interested in whether it is feasible to read large amounts of text from the relatively small screen of your iPhone or Blackberry. To this end I started reading a book using the free Stanza application on my iPhone. Here are my initial thoughts:

Advantages of reading texts on smartphones

  1. You can have a large book (any number of them actually) always available in your pocket / handbag, converged with a device you need anyway (your phone) so you never need either to remember it or to carry about an additional object.
  2. You can use small periods of time, such as waiting for someone, waiting for public transport, sitting in a traffic jam (not sure if that’s illegal) which would otherwise be wasted to make progress with your reading.
  3. It is easier to hold the device in your hand than to hold a book and simple to turn the pages with a tiny flick of the thumb. I don’t like to bend the back of a paperback book so am forever holding the thing at an odd angle, bending my eyes round corners. Hardback books are heavy. I have no such problems / weird behaviour with the cellphone.
  4. In contrast to reading on a computer, the smartphone is always on so there are no tortuous waits while the thing boots up.

There are of course many advantages to digital texts in general as opposed to paper, such as:

  1. They’re instantly downloadable, infinitely replicable and have miniscule distribution costs.
  2. There are already many thousands of books available for free.
  3. They can incorporate hyperlinks to other relevant resources.
  4. With the right software you can click/tap a word for an instant dictionary definition.
  5. You can incorporate discussions relating to parts of the text.
  6. You can highlight and annotate parts of the text – both persist and can be edited and shared easily. Write on a book and it’s hard to amend and of course irritating for other readers.
  7. You can optimise the font size, contrast of colours etc.
  8. Diagrams and images can be zoomed in on.
  9. You can integrate videos, animations etc with the text.
  10. An e-book doesn’t clutter up your house.

But it’s not all roses. You probably like books if you grew up with them like I did and here are some reasons why they’re better:

  1. Browsing around a bookshop is an almost vice-like pleasure.
  2. The tactile nature of paper and the pleasure at touching these old-fashioned physical objects just won’t go away.
  3. The screen size of a smart phone is smaller than a book. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a bad thing, though you’re forced to “turn” pages much more frequently.
  4. You can have several books and assorted pieces of paper viewable at once. Not so easy on a mobile device.
  5. Paper doesn’t become unusable when its battery runs out. Nor do you have to be a slave to electricity supplies.
  6. Books look good on your bookshelves.
  7. Open University students like getting books through the post and may feel they’re getting less for their money if there’s nothing physical to show for it.

As people become more comfortable with reading from small mobile devices they will inevitably buy fewer books in the same way they’re buying fewer CDs and more mp3s. The price differential is likely to be huge. Paper books are certainly going to remain available for those who wish to pay for them. For those comfortable with reading from mobile phones it may seem an unnecessary luxury to spend £10 on a paper book when you can have the electronic version instantly in your pocket for £1 or less. Whether I (and the rest of my generation) can ever be completely comfortable reading in this way remains to be seen but I’m certainly going to persist with it. And for relatively small chunks of reading I have no doubt that this is going to be a popular way to learn.