Can the use of wireless handheld reading devices, or eBooks, in classrooms boost students’ interest in reading? According to a group of Ball State University researchers, the answer might be “yes.”

A team of graduate students led by Richard Bellaver, associate director of Ball State’s Center for Information and Communications Sciences, is in the midst of a multi-year study designed to test the effectiveness of the wireless handheld device as a reading tool. The team has released its latest study results, which suggest that many elementary students who have been ambivalent toward reading in the past have displayed enthusiasm for reading with the devices.

“The evidence from teachers says that the kids are more interested and the poor readers are more eager to use the eBooks,” Bellaver said. “If we can get one student in 100 to start reading just because of the novelty of the eBook, it’s a great advantage.”

For this latest round of research, Bellaver and his team partnered with an Indiana elementary school to study the effects of eBooks on uninterested third- and fourth-grade readers. Teachers scanned a book and uploaded it to the eBook reading device, and funds from the research team’s grant were used to purchase access to the Reading A-Z web site.

Fifty students in all participated, and they used the $700 REB 1200 eBook reader from RCA as their hardware platform. (The device is now obsolete, Bellaver said; he and his team tried to procure new handhelds for this project, but their plans fell through when several companies declined to lend them devices for the duration of the research.)

At the beginning of the study, all 50 participating third- and fourth-grade students were familiar with the eBooks and had used them before for reading purposes. The research team hypothesized that the students, based on their previous exposure to the devices, would use the eBooks more quickly and without much difficulty. Twenty students completed a post-use satisfaction survey, in which 17 expressed a solid interest toward reading books, while the rest said they still did not like reading. Fifteen students said they liked reading on the handheld devices better than reading hardcover books, and most students reported that the activity was fun and interesting.

The teacher for this class has expressed interest in participating in further studies, and Bellaver’s team has converted text from four additional books for her to use on wireless handheld devices for the coming fall semester.

Bellaver said his graduate students reported that the fourth-graders did not need any explanation before using the devices, were eager and comfortable with them, and thought the devices looked “a lot like PDAs” (personal digital assistants).

Another 15 students used the eBooks in class and at home for two weeks, and their teacher used the device to teach in class. This class read two books on the handheld devices, and at the end of the reading time, students answered a survey with questions designed to elicit their experiences, opinions, and suggestions. The survey used a five-point Likert scale, with “5” being the highest rating.

Nearly 75 percent of the students answered with a “5” when asked whether they enjoyed reading from the eBooks more than from a printed book, and all students responded with a “3” or higher. Sixty-five percent answered with a “5” when asked whether they would read from a handheld device more than from a regular book.

The students’ teacher said interest in reading increased significantly when the same books were available on the handheld devices. Some students suggested that eBooks should have mathematic capabilities, so students could use them for math homework. If students were not motivated to read, the teacher said, the handhelds provided lots of motivation. However, if students were struggling with the reading process, the eBooks did not make a difference.

Bellaver said he thinks the novelty of the eBooks was the chief reason for students’ enthusiasm, but the flexibility and additional functionality offered by the devices–for instance, the ability to search quickly for a word or phrase-—might have “kept their interest.”

The research is funded by grants, including funds from AT&T and Campus Compact. Bellaver said researchers will continue to assess exactly how valuable the devices are to students.

“Now we turn to [the question]: OK, it’s a handheld portable device, but can we show that there is an advantage to children using these books?” he said. “What we really need to do is to find out if it’s useful to the students at all. We certainly proved that it’s fun.”

Bellaver said his team is seeking partners, particularly in publishing and hardware, who might help them with further research.

“The small scale of the effort won’t impress many people, [but] my hope is that with better devices, publisher cooperation, and more research to discover whether learning is enhanced through the use of this technology, we can get the backpacks off our children and maybe improve their education,” he said.


Richard Bellaver

More on Bellaver’s research

Reading A-Z