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I was surprised by this headline: “Kindle spurs DOJ to action.” It’s from a student newspaper in Tennessee, highlighting a new drama for the Kindle. There’s been official communications between college campuses and the United States Department of Justice – and the Kindle-using colleges have now started to react.

The federal government’s Civil Rights Division had issued an advisory specifically about “universities using electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.” (The student newspaper cites civil rights investigations which were launched against four colleges, including Arizona State University and Case Western Reserve University.) “We acted swiftly to respond to complaints we received about the use of the Amazon Kindle,” announced an Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Though the Kindle DX has a text-to-speech function, the Civil Rights Division noted it didn’t work for the menus or navigation controls.

The four targeted universities agreed “not to purchase, recommend, or promote use of this or other electronic book readers unless the devices are fully accessible…or the universities provide a reasonable modification…” And then the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights co-authored a letter to college presidents across America, also asking them to “voluntarily ensure that their schools refrain from requiring the use of any devices that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.” But what’s ironic about this is some universities may not even want the Kindle. MIT’s technology blog argued Tuesday that “formal trials of the Kindle as a textbook replacement led universities like Princeton and Arizona State University to reject it as inadequate.”

I knew that Arizona halted their Kindle experiment over concerns about its accessbility to the blind. But what happened in the Kindle experiments at Princeton? Fortunately, MIT’s blog had linked to an article which led to a February report from Princeton’s student newspaper which answered my question. “Students and faculty participating in the program said it was difficult to highlight and annotate PDF files and to use the folder structure intended to organize documents… The inability to quickly navigate between documents and view two or more documents at the same time also frustrated users.”

There’s lots of talk about the Kindle in education, but it was fun to hear feedback from actual students. One sophomore had initially been enthusiastic about the program, but reported that “it’s not very helpful in page-turning or note taking, and the annotation software is very poor.” A senior agreed that it was difficult to annotate text, and also had another complaint about the absence of physical pages. “Because there are no page numbers, I also had no conception of how much reading I had to do.” And of course, it was hard to synchronize class discussions when some students were using page numbers, and others were using locations.

I pored over the article carefully, because it seemed like it held clues to the future of the Kindle, but even some of the professors seemed unhappy. An international affairs professor complained that he’d wanted his students to study their texts carefully, ideally by highlighting lots of passages, and he felt that with the Kindle “the annotation function is difficult to use, and the keyboard is very small.” Another professor argued his class included “very traditional reading,” and he felt it was a good match for the Kindle – though he did worry it would make it harder to refer to the readings during class. But on the positive side, one classics professor suggested it was “a great advantage to always have all the texts available without carrying too much around.”

And at least one student felt the Kindle was helpful when writing papers, because highlighted text could be downloaded onto his computer, and then cut-and-pasted directly into his term papers! But almost two-thirds of the study’s participants said they wouldn’t even buy a new reader if they broke the one they’d been given during the study. “But nearly all reported that they would follow the technology’s progress,” the newspaper concluded, and this is my favorite part of the study. “The 53 students who participated in the pilot program were allowed to keep their Kindles after the courses ended.”

Meanwhile, Amazon’s newest Kindles are now finally fully accessible to the blind, according to a history of the controversy in The Washington Examiner. (“While the Justice Department was making demands, and Perez was making speeches, the market was working.”) And back at the Middle Tennessee State University, the director of Disabled Student Services gave their campus a thumbs up for their Kindle policy — mainly because none of the professors were using them yet. “As far as he knows…there aren’t any courses that require students to use electronic readers at MTSU, which has the largest population of students with disabilities in the Southeast.”

“I’ve seen students using them,” noted the adaptive technology coordinator, “but I don’t think they’re part of their curriculum…”

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