EReading Pilot Project – The iPad and Reading and Writing Practices

In Spring 2010, Denise Comer, Thompson Writing Program, worked in collaboration with Kenneth Rogerson, Lecturer in Public Policy and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Sanford School of Public Policy; and Rebecca Vidra,Lecturer, Nicholas School of the Environment, to examine the pedagogical potential of integrating an ereading technology, the iPad, into writing intensive Duke undergraduate courses.  In this guest post, Comer shares some initial thoughts and results of the project.  You may also read a post by Vidra and a post by Rogerson on the project.

While e-reading has gained popularity outside academia, it has only recently appeared in scholarly settings, with some institutions making active efforts to integrate e-reading technologies into their curricula. Although it could be argued that e-readers are a short-lived trend, or will remain primarily in the corporate and leisure sectors, the growing popularity of e-reading devices suggests that e-reading will continue making inroads into the academy. Given its long term sustainability potential, coupled with its pedagogical potential and its continuing likely growth, I was interested in piloting a multidisciplinary e-reading project in which faculty and students could explore pedagogical strategies, reading practices, faculty and student perceptions, and the impact of iPad e-reading technology on scholarly writing.

After completing a Jump-Start Grant Request, the CIT granted iPad loaners for three writing intensive classes in Spring 2011 to conduct a multidisciplinary inquiry into the impact of e-reading on scholarly reading and writing practices. Students and faculty in the following three courses received iPad loaners for the entire Spring 2011 semester: Writing 20.01, (Academic Writing) Money Matters: The Art of Grant Writing, Professor Comer; Public Policy 120S: News Writing and Reporting, Prof. Ken Rogerson; and Environmental Science 105S:  Ethical Challenges in Environmental Conservation, Prof. Rebecca Vidra.


The data hasn’t yet been fully analyzed from our online surveys and end-of-term focus groups. Preliminary findings, though, seem to indicate that the “cool factor” of the iPad is significant, and may bring added enthusiasm to writing and reading merely because the vehicle is new and different. For writing and reading, two areas that many people find daunting or burdensome at times, this is important. The novelty, however, may wear off rather quickly.

For me, any novelty affiliated with the iPad is also offset by the great sea of unknown apps, about which I had continual anxiety. While many other people would probably appreciate the ongoing launching of new applications and the immense range of options, I found this enormity of possibility daunting. I had the perpetual sense that I was missing something, that there was some app out there that was better, more fitting, or more adapted for my purposes. While I generally enjoy questions and unknowns as a way of thinking, I think in my technology I prefer a sense of knowing and a confidence that I can get a handle on that which I’m using.

Preliminary findings also indicate that ereading does have some positive impact on scholarly reading practices, but has a negative impact on scholarly writing practices. In my own usage, I found the reading of pdfs and books considerably more efficient on the iPad because it was more portable and I could organize my annotations more easily than in print. Taking quick notes was extremely easy, and this proved incredibly helpful during administrative meetings, conferences, and making notes in class about variety of ideas. Writing, however, in a sustained way, was quite burdensome on the iPad, even with the external keyboard. The features of iPad applications were not yet as sophisticated as word processing capabilities on the computer.

This disjuncture between the iPad’s usefulness for reading and difficulty with writing bring to mind questions about how we define writing. To my mind, writing is all too often conceived of as occurring at a unified moment in time, writing up data findings, or pulling an all nighter to get a term paper done. Writing is also too often defined as long projects. A case could be made, though, that writing happens across long lengths of time, in little pockets of thinking, and that the little notes and ideas one may jot down at random times throughout a day are just as significant as those moments of longer, sustained writing. In a way, then, the iPad encouraged me as a writer to capture my thoughts in a succinct way and let them percolate for a while until I had time to expand, abandon, or adapt them later at my computer.

Getting an opportunity to better understand how people define writing, and to think not only about the intersections of writing and reading, and e-reading and writing, but about writing notes and writing long projects is extremely valuable for me as a scholar of writing studies. When I embarked on this project, I was (and remain) not so much interested in advocating for or against a technology, as thinking about how to define and understand the impact this technology might have. The most rewarding aspect thus far, then, for me has been that students and faculty across disciplines have been engaging in thoughtful reflection about their writing and reading practices, and about the nature of writing and reading, and differentiating between various occasions for writing and reading.