How reader technology has made me a smarter reader and learner

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I read a few articles recently on how ebooks affect learning. On the con side, these articles pointed out that textbooks are often less available in ebook (true), that the e-versions which do exist are clunky and limited (true) and that for some types of learning, people really do absorb information better off paper than off screens (debatable). I had one bad experience myself with a formal e-textbook required for an official course, and I agree with some of the points these commentators made. But on the pro side, reader technology has made my non-formal, personal reading smarter, easier and more meaningful. Here are four ways reading technology has made me a smarter, better reader:

1) BUILT-IN DICTIONARIES MAKE LANGUAGE LEARNING A SNAP

Ah, the good old days, when reading in a second language meant carrying around a dictionary and possibly a grammar guide or verb tense conjugation table too! Don’t you miss those days? I sure don’t! On my old e-ink Kindle, I could highlight a word and get an instant lookup, which was handy. But the iPad takes it one step further. An app called FrenchReader has built-in Google Translate functionality. I can highlight entire sentences and get an instant translation of the whole thing! 

French is a language that uses compound verb tenses. The Kindle’s one-word lookup could tell me that ‘fait’ was a form of ‘faire, to do’ but it couldn’t tell me that the whole phrase, ‘j’ai fait,’ was a past tense form. Verb tenses intimidate me when I read in French and even if I have comprehension of what the verb means, I’ll drive myself crazy trying to translate the nuances of these compound tenses as I read. The ability to translate on the fly—with one tap!—is super-handy. 

The app is a bit of a disk space hog, so I am hoping that as my fluency improves I can wean myself off it and return to the Kindle app. And unlike the Kindle’s built-in dictionary, the Google Translate plug-in requires a live internet connection, which isn’t always convenient for me. Still, this app saves massive time over the paper days and makes me far more likely to read in French than I used to be.

2) BUILT-IN WIKIPEDIA LOOKUP MAKES NON-FICTION READING A TREAT

In the paper days, I preferred fiction. These days, I am reading more non-fiction than ever, and one of the reasons is that my iPad’s Kindle reader app has a built-in Wikipedia browser which makes cross-referencing less of a hassle than it used to be. I can look up details not just within my device, but without even leaving the app itself!

Right now, I am reading a history book that has references to many obscure historical events I am unfamiliar with. It’s so easy to tap on a word, and then choose ‘Wikipedia.’ And up pops a screen with everything I need to know! Close the screen, and I am right back into the book. I am also reading a book about psychology that’s excellent, but features some terminology I am not familiar with. Wikipedia is a perfect way to get a little more detail on what these terms mean.

Sure, I could read the book in paper and just go to my computer to look things up. But having it right there from within the app is very convenient and is definitely a feature that’s worthwhile to me.

3) THE HIGHLIGHT FEATURE ALLOWS ME TO BETTER RETAIN AND SHARE IMPORTANT PASSAGES

The highlight feature has given me two great benefits. Firstly, it allows me to better retain important quotes, bits of information of passages I might want to come back to later. This was something I always wanted to do when I read in paper, but I never seemed to be organized enough to keep a notebook with me when I read, and I never figured out a good way to organize it for referencing later. Now, it’s easy. I keep an epub file on my desktop, and whenever I finish a book, I call up the highlights and copy them into the file, slotting each book into the greater system by author’s name. I can convert this file to mobi and email it to my Kindle app at any time and re-read the whole thing, or just one book’s section.

What this means for non-fiction titles is that I can use the information much more readily. I read a book a couple of months on dietary suggestions for managing blood sugar, for instance, and decided the other day that I wanted to try the plan from this book for the summer to see how it made me feel. In the old days, this would have involved re-reading the book. But thanks to the Kindle highlights, I had saved the key points and I could just refresh myself on them in a fraction of the time.

The second benefit for me has been that I can share the best things I read much more concisely and meaningfully. I enjoy reading self-help books, for example, and I often get useful suggestions from them. My partner does not enjoy reading these books, and his interest in conversing with me about them is fairly limited. If I were to say to him ‘here is this book I really enjoyed, you should read it!’ the odds that would happen would be very slim. However, if I say ‘can I read this one quick thing to you?’ he’ll often say yes. He won’t always respond to these ideas the same way I did, but he’ll at least engage in the dialogue, and sometimes, I do hit a goldmine and get a good conversation about it. And that’s more than I’d get if the cost of entry into the discussion was him reading a whole book! 

4) EASY AUTHOR TOOLS MAKES IT SIMPLE TO COLLATE CONTENT YOURSELF

Novels aren’t the only thing I like to read, and increasingly easy authoring tools make it easy to collate other materials into ‘books’ I can keep and use. I love to read poetry, for instance, but I find many anthologies to be a mixed bag. There are a few gems, and an awful lot of filler! But, just like my clipping file, I can pick and choose the things I like best and make my own collection. I keep an ePub file on my desktop and add poems to it as they come my way. When I feel like reading my favourites, I can load my custom anthology onto my device and way I go!

Calibre also has several plug-ins which make collecting content easy. Currently, there are plug-ins which generate ebooks based on fanfiction stories, recipe websites and wikipedia articles. I’m sure more will be available as time goes on. Just plug in the URLs and Calibre puts the whole thing together for you. Choose ePub as your output option, and you can use an ePub editor to customize even further. It’s so easy!

So for me, the limitations of the current e-textbook system are just one part of the learning equation. I do plenty of learning on books I read for fun, and reader software has made that a treat!

5 Comments on How reader technology has made me a smarter reader and learner

  1. The “learning equation” is, itself, a learning accomplishment. The action of definition of affordances of a variety of transmission media brings us to recognize our habits of learning. It can also map the diversity of attributes and dis-attributes of distinct media formats such as the paper and screen book.

    Perhaps we need a bit of transcendence beyond polarized evaluations. Habits themselves can provide obstacles to recognition of the interdependence of transmission media. Today’s scholars must be very gymnastic readers and continually re-evaluate their research methods and sources. Look to research libraries for integration of storage, discover, access, and display across all media types.

  2. Great point about highlighting. It’s easy to highlight something in a book, but not so easy to find it again when you need it.

    If that book isn’t directly in front of me, then I am completely unable to find that passage. Having it on an ebook on my iPad just makes it easy and logical to access.

    Good post.

    Buddy Scalera
    http://www.wordspicturesweb.com

  3. Sergey Pozhilov // July 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm //

    Absolutely true, every single sentence. Personally, I was impressed by the social features or e-reading: it’s cool and a bit strange to see that 20, 50 or more people have highlighted the same paragraph in the book I’m reading.

  4. I don’t think it has been made me a better learner. But having so many digital resources at my fingertips almost anywhere and at any time definitely opened up new opportunities for reading. I have amassed quite a library of PDFs about subjects of interest to me which would have been unwieldy to view on the PC.

    I find having a technical ebook on my ipad to refer to while working on a technical problem on my PC helps me a lot.

  5. Good point, Robert, about the utility of having a second screen. I remember once diagnosing a hard drive problem on my macbook by using the internet on my iPad to look it up! And of course, there is the ‘my books are everywhere!’ cloud aspect—if I am out, and I finish reading a paper book, I have to buy a new one. If I am out and finish an ebook, I can access my dropbox remotely and download something from my to-read pile right into my Kindle app. And reading on my iPod Touch has rescued those random 10 minutes at the bus stop, or the wait in the doctor’s office, from dead time to productive time. There is an educational gain to *more* reading, too!

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