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Student perspectives on ebook and audiobook usage
Various studies suggest that ebook usage is suffering in comparison to its print counterpart. Franklin’s (2016) research indicates that readers overwhelmingly prefer print books to ebooks, while others argue that readers’ information retention and comprehension while using ebooks are not as strong as with print books (Flood 2015; Salter n.d.; Walter 2014). Data in other studies imply that the rise of ebook sales have begun to falter (Baddeley 2015; Kowlowski 2015; Alter 2015; Trachtenberg 2015). Yet, despite this, the accessibility and availability of ebooks continues to be a strong point in their favour.
In the Marist College Canberra’s Senior Library, we have several methods for our school community to access and read audiobooks and ebooks. For the past three years, we have subscribed to a popular ebook and audiobook delivery system. Essentially, it’s a library within our library: one that can be accessed on any device, from anywhere with an internet connection, which makes it a fantastic resource for readers.
Additionally, we have a set of around 30 Kobo devices. Several of these are dedicated to a ‘staff’ account, for which we purchase content more likely to be consumed by adult readers. The majority are synced to a ‘student’ account, which has more than 140 titles suitable for young adults. We also have three Kindle devices, which are primarily used as a repository for certain audiobooks, and include material sourced from the Gutenberg Project (out-of-copyright, free ebooks), in our library management system for easy access.
The ongoing use of each of these systems is highly variable. During some periods, students are eager to borrow ereaders and read prolifically and indiscriminately. For our heavy borrowers, they are an ideal option for holiday loans. Usage of ebooks and audiobooks increases significantly when the library staff markets the technologies in classes, but drops off sharply when this active promotion ceases. Kindle use is minimal, and usually only occurs at the request of a staff member, for individual student cases. However, anecdotally we know that many students use ebook apps with their own (or family) accounts on their personal devices. We also see many students reading manga on their devices, a trend that supplements the physical copies of manga series held in the library collection.
The costs involved in maintaining ebook and audiobook access vary. Our lending platform is somewhat expensive, with a cost of $4,000 per annum, which includes $1,000 of content credit. Restrictions on content can be significant, with various publishers having limitations on the number of loans, the length of time the title will be available, and even requiring that a certain number of unique titles be purchased in bulk before access to their collection is given. In addition, once an institution discontinues its subscription, it loses all access to material it had leased.
During Term 3 in 2015, I invited the teachers and students of all Years 7 to 9 English classes to take part in a research activity with two goals: firstly, to investigate the current awareness and usage of ebook and audiobook technology in the school; secondly, to discover whether this could be increased both in the short term and with lasting effect through direct and targeted marketing. During Term 4, I requested opportunities to work with students for around 10 to 15 minutes at a time. In all, the research involved 13 classes with around 28 students in each.
Students in Year 7 who had come up from the Marist College Junior School had all been exposed to our ebook and audiobook lending platform in Year 6, through a targeted process with the junior school teacher librarian. Many of the students had also been advised about the platform and devices via their literature enrichment lessons in Years 7 and 8.
Conducting the survey
The initial survey invited students to consider their regular reading habits, their knowledge of ebook reading devices, and their personal experiences with our e-lending platform.
We conducted this survey, which was created and administered online through a Google Form and Google Sheets capture, at the start of each group’s lesson with us, prior to any discussion about the topic.
I was disappointed but unsurprised by the finding that more than 85% of respondents either didn’t know about our e-lending platform or had not used it. The likely inference is that the 10% of students who said they had used the technology were Year 7 students who had been exposed to it in the junior school.
Once students had completed the survey, we spent time with the class to demonstrate use of the platform, to answer questions about it, and to support the students in investigating it themselves. We created displays within the library during the term to remind readers about the available technology, and also sent two emails to the participating classes advising them when new ebooks and audiobooks were added to the catalogue.
We saw most of the 13 classes at least once more in the term, during which time we administered a second survey. The results of this showed that around 15% of the students identified as having used our ebook and audiobook platform: a small increase but somewhat disheartening given the opportunities to investigate it in class time. Only 3.5% of respondents said they would use the platform during the school holidays. Interestingly, the follow-up survey sent to all participants in the first week of Term 1 2016 showed that in fact eight per cent of respondents had used it. However, as the survey was only sent by email and the response was less than a quarter of the original sample size, it could be inferred that the respondents were students with a greater interest in reading in general, and in ebook technology specifically.
Comparing the responses to the e-lending statistics for the holiday period suggests that around three per cent of the student population used the platform during the holidays, supporting the previous inference. The number of items borrowed from the platform was similar to the number of physical items borrowed in the week leading up to the holidays, but many students are not aware they can borrow physical books during the break, which influences borrowing.
Statistics from our e-lending platform also show that during the research and promotion period, student ebook and audiobook borrowing increased from previous months, although only around nine per cent of the student population was utilising the system, with about 475 loans. In the same period, approximately 1,800 physical resources were circulated.
What I learned
It was interesting to investigate other research on reading and comprehension that compared print to screen outcomes, and particularly about the perception of these technologies among specific groups. However, most of this research was in relation to non-fiction texts; there doesn’t seem to have been much formal, long-term research carried out on the enjoyment and comprehension of fiction, comparing print books to ebooks. I would be particularly interested in a longitudinal study of readers that looks at the changing discernment of their enjoyment over time when they are required to substitute ebooks for print. Anecdotally, it would seem that the current perception is based more on the idealisation of print books than on fact, particularly among people who identify as ‘readers’ — that is, those who read prolifically (at least one book per week). This may be an area for further study in the future.
I discovered that a higher percentage of users than I had anticipated were using the ebook and audiobook technologies, with more titles borrowed both prior to and during the research and promotion period. With that said, this percentage and number is still significantly smaller than that of the print book users. I also found a strong negative perception among the students towards reading ebooks generally, with a far lower proportion being aware of our e-lending platform than I would have expected. The final response regarding use of the platform during the holiday period was particularly disappointing.
Despite the low usage statistics in our school, there are still many opportunities provided by ebook and audiobook delivery systems. Access is a particular advantage, and as more students begin to feel comfortable with reading fiction on screen, accessibility — in more than one sense of the word — is very important. I also believe that every major change in terms of ubiquity of technology, including the introduction of the print book itself, has been a challenge; but every major change has to start somewhere.
We are still in the early stages of ebook adoption, particularly in Australia, and I can’t help but think it is a field that will continue to experience game-changing advances in technology and acceptance over time.
Alter, A 2015, ‘The plot twist: e-book sales slip, and print is far from dead’, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/23/business/media/the-plot-twist-e-book-sales-slip-and-print-is-far-from-dead.html?_r=0
Baddeley, A 2015, ‘The ebook is dead. Long live the ebook’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/01/the-ebook-is-dead-long-live-print-digital-sales
Flood, A 2015, ‘Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation
Franklin, MJ 2016, ‘Sorry, technophiles: 92% of students prefer books to e-readers’, Mashable, http://mashable.com/2016/02/05/books-vs-e-readers/#GAcGViQuoSqr
Kowlowski, M 2015, ‘e-Book sales fall 9.3% from January to July 2015’, Good E-Reader, http://goodereader.com/blog/e-booknews/e-book-sales-fall-9-3-from-january-to-july-2015
Salter, P n.d., ‘Impact of reading from a screen versus from print material’, http://www.radford.act.edu.au/storage/reading-on-screens-v-paper.pdf
Trachtenberg, JA 2015, ‘E-book sales fall after new Amazon contracts’, Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/article_email/e-book-sales-weaken-amid-higher-prices-1441307826-lMyQjAxMTE1MzAxNDUwMjQ2Wj
Walker, M 2014, ‘New study suggests ebooks could negatively affect how we comprehend what we read’, USA Today, http://college.usatoday.com/2014/04/17/print-vs-ebooks-it-is-so-e-on/
Tehani Wessely is currently the Head of Information Services at Marist College Canberra, following roles as a teacher and librarian across Australia over the past 15 years. She has a passion for reading and is an avid user of technology, both in the classroom and for recreational purposes. In her ‘spare time’, she operates a boutique publishing house, FableCroft Publishing. Find her on Twitter: @editormum75.