Gotta love e-Readers and their e-book content. Save some trees and carry a lot of content around in one lightweight device. Nice! However, there is one area of e-books that is sorely lacking and until this area gets sufficiently addressed, I can see students and faculty still giving a lukewarm handshake to the arrival of e-books. This feature is the ability to have more options and features when it comes to annotating text. But, there is a workaround of sorts…
Students need to be able to take notes and they need to be able to annotate the sources they use in their studies. Right now, doing this with e-books is hard and quite frankly a pain. Trying annotating text on a Kindle and it will take you all semester to get through one chapter in your chemistry text. Granted, the Kindle (and Kindle for the iPhone and iPad) do allow for highlighting, bookmarking and note taking but these annotations are fairly limited in terms of what you can do with them. You cannot for instance, export them into any sort of format that could be printed as study guide or combined into a digital format for review. These annotations are stuck within the text where they are made. The same goes for books in Apple’s iBook app on the iPad. You can bookmark passages but that is it. You cannot even take notes on these passages, only mark them up. Then they are stuck within the particular book where you made them. While iBooks supports the open ePub format, you still don’t have any way to export annotations from a book that is free and clear of copyright for instance. Undoubtedly the issue is not a technical one, but rather one of copyright. If one can export whole passages out of a book, what stops one from exporting the entire text? But, nothing stops students from photocopying passages for sharing and annotating. The world is digital so surely we should be able to do something better for annotation that helps students in these formats and devices.
While the Kindle and iPad with its iBook app are the e-reader technologies I am most familiar, I think just about all e-readers don’t allow for easy annotation if they allow it at all. And this is a problem for students of all ages who need to be able to do this.
The other issue is speed. Students need to move quickly around their texts to find passages and link information together. The pen and paper still have the winning edge here. The Kindle is no speed demon nor are other dedicated e-readers. The iPad however, is a different story. It is very fast and responsive. Once it gets multi-tasking in the OS, then things may get interesting. You may have a device that can provide the speed needed for moving around texts and information that competes with pen and paper. The major hiccup is typing on the iPad and e-Readers. I don’t care how fast a typist you are, you are not going to be able to type as fast on a scaled down keyboard, especially a digital one. So again pen and paper wins for now.
The third issue is one that may not be easily resolved. This is how to cite a passage in an e-book. The problem lies within the ability to reformat the text. Make it bigger and you have more “pages.” Make the text smaller and you have less “pages.” The page numbers are essentially moving targets that are hard to nail down. Its a problem. I suspect that ways around this may be by using absolute word number as a reference. Such as from word 1287 to word 1521 could be a passage cited. Not sure if this is really a way to do this, but its a start. So this is another area that needs addressing with e-books before they can really be taken seriously in academic circles.
Its really no surprise that the Kindle experiments across some campuses in the last year or so have not really been well received by students. The device is just not there yet. They are great for reading and consuming text, but not good for really “studying” a text. There are signs that Amazon is not sitting still, having recently acquired a touch screen technology company along with hiring lots of folks in its hardware group. So who knows what future Kindles will be like, but hopefully the devices will get faster.
Until this happens, I think e-readers will largely find their niche with recreational readers as opposed to students and scholars. Having said this, I do think e-readers and e-books have great promise and I think the technology companies and publishing houses will come up with a solution.
In the meantime, here is an option, so get out your digital duct tape and I’ll show you a little workaround that might be somewhat of a solution for now. This solution is based on iPhones, Touches and iPad and works with the Kindle and iBook software available for these devices.
You will need to know how to take screen shots with your device. Hold the home button while at the same time holding down the sleep button at the top right of the device. This will give you a screen shot, neatly stored into your photo library on your device. Then do this:
1 Annotate or bookmark the passage or page you are interested in
2 Take a screen shot on your iPhone or iPad. Make sure that the app’s navigation bar is hidden so you can see that the location is saved in the image. Even though this info may not be totally useful it is more metadata that you can potentially use. The navigation bar for the Kindle iPad/iPhone app may cover up the page location.
3 Install or open up Evernote on your iPhone or iPad (its free)
4 Load up the images you have taken by creating new image note for each screen shot. You will initially only be able to add one image per note on your device. If you have lots of screen shots, this may take a little while, but it goes quickly.
5 Next, either install or launch the desktop version of Evernote. Let it sync your notes from the iPhone or iPad.
6 Select all the notes that contain the screen shots.
7 Right click and select Combine Notes which will pull them all into one note.
8 Viola! You now have a collection of screenshots with the passages you are interested in. And for bonus points, Evernote runs OCR on the images so you can actually search this combined note for particular words, phrases or passages.
9 If you are so inclined, you can then print this note with the collected images that you can then use for studying, sharing or….further annotating! Yay. Please print responsibly and only if you really need to do this
One little hiccup is if you do this a lot, you may exceed your monthly data usage on Evernote. If this happens, then you will have to spring for a Premium account ($45 per year if paid all at once) which is not too big of a price to pay for annotated notes from your e-books.
So before you give the e-books and their required devices the heave ho for textbooks, see if this works for you. It is not perfect, but it beats the alternatives that I have seen for now.
Another area to know about is the Amazon Kindle site where you can access the passages you have bookmarked, highlighted or made a note about. Its nice to be able to access this, but like the annotations in the Kindle, I was not able to find a way to export this information but I could have missed this. Let me know if you have any luck with this. The site is http://kindle.amazon.com. My colleague Alan Levine pointed this out to me so thanks Alan!
If you have other ideas or suggestions for annotating e-books please let us know in the comments!