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January 15, 2015

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IDEA WATCH: Ebooks–What Can We Learn From Students?

IDEA WATCH: Ebooks–What Can We Learn From Students?


They are the wave of the future … but what if students don’t want to ride that wave?

We’ve all heard the hype about ebooks in schools. But are school libraries experiencing the same surge in demand that public libraries are? Is there consumer (i.e., student) demand for ebooks in school libraries? From informal conversations with other librarians and observations of students at our own 1:1 school, it seems that ebooks are taking off very slowly in most school settings. But it’s important we understand more nuances of student ebook use to inform our decision making. We find ourselves straddling the expectations of school administrators and the reality of our student practices during this awkward transition. How can the data shed light on the picture “on the ground” as it were? And then what do we do about it?

Innovation, Technology Adoption, and Ebooks

The “Diffusion of Innovation” theory, expanded by Everett Rogers, provides some insight into the adoption process of new technologies and the different types of adopters, who he depicts spreading along an adoption curve. ( Innovators make up 2.5% of the population; early adopters, 13.5%; early majority, 34%; and so on. Seven years after the first Kindle, what level of ebook use is there by students in schools? It’s likely that most schools are still experiencing the earliest stages of adoption. Yet because ebooks are more widely adopted by older consumers and in public libraries, there is perhaps a misconception by school leaders about the rates of adoption in schools.

In looking at my own library statistics last spring, I noticed our ebook use was still fairly low, even after 4 years of 1:1 tablets at my campus. After delving further into the stats, I discovered that the library ebook products had a small number of repeat users compared to the number of students at our campus. This piqued my curiosity, and with even more e-text products coming onto the market this fall, including recently announced e-magazine services from Ebsco, Gale and OverDrive as well as Zinio, it feels important that we better understand our student e-reading habits.

Pew Internet Survey

The Pew Internet Survey’s “Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013” helps educators to understand the habits of readers 18 and older. It notes, “Overall, about half (52%) of readers only read a print book, 4% only read an e-book, and just 2% only listened to an audiobook. Nine percent of readers said they read books in all three formats” ( The Pew Snapshot found that adults with more education are more likely to have read an ebook, as are more urban individuals. Hispanic populations are the least likely to have read an ebook. Income matters as well. Those reporting the highest incomes are more likely to have read an ebook (and, according to Rogers, are more likely to be early adopters).

How do these demographics matter to those of us in K–12 schools? It suggests we should continue to emphasize reading literacy of all kinds to those less likely to encounter ebooks in their schools and homes due to lack of income, education, etc., and we should work to find ways to make their access to econtent easier.

Pew Research also illuminates changes in tablet use: Dedicated e-reader use has jumped 16% since 2011, tablet e-reading, 32%; meanwhile, computer ebook reading has dropped 12%. This information is helpful to schools considering large ebook purchases that do not have 1:1 devices. There is clearly a decreasing preference for reading ebooks via laptops or desktops (

SLJ/LJ Report

School Library Journal and Library Journal’s 2013 report “Ebook Usage in U.S. School (K–12) Libraries” paints a portrait of ebook use specific to schools ( It documents that school libraries have been building small ebook collections slowly, up from a median of 32 books per school in 2010 to 136 titles by 2013. According to the study, “Ebooks have yet to see the surge in demand and circulation in school libraries that public libraries have experienced.” One reason could be selection of titles. As one commenter notes: “I’ve noticed that the titles my middle school students want to read are not available via the ‘big’ vendors (OverDrive, FollettShelf, MackinVIA) because they are popular, recent fiction. My students are accessing the ebooks they really want via Amazon and B&N and paying for them out of their own pockets.
It’s frustrating!”

Local Research—Some Whys and How-To’s

Sensing a similar tendency of student purchasing on my own campus, I find it important to start investigating what is really happening on the ground level. Hopefully, local research will help us determine how to proceed in this transitional time.

I wanted to assess the self-reported reading habits of our students as well as gather more granular information, such as what features of ebooks they like, what issues they are having with reading them, how our publicity efforts are working, etc.

We’re using a multipronged approach thus far—an online survey, one-to-one student interviews and video interviews. Then we also have an informal assessment—a wall board in the library where students can indicate the category that fits them: “prefer ebooks” or “prefer print.” Of course, there are many other ways to gather information from students. Andy Plemmons, librarian at Barrow Media Center in Athens, Georgia, uses a collaborative Google Doc, where students can give input on a product to vendors. You could gather suggestions for vendors by doing role-playing with students—i.e.,
“If ____ designed an ebook, what would it look like?” A collaborative board similar to or Padlet could be used to gather student feedback or pros/cons.

Deirdre Costello, a researcher with EBSCO, shared another fascinating way to get information from our camera-friendly generation in her presentation at Internet Librarian. EBSCO’s research team sent video cameras to students to film their own reactions to databases. Having students self-record their experiences while downloading library ebook apps could also prove quite interesting. Whatever the methodology, doing this sort of action research with students can provide us with impactful information.

What We Found

Our own preliminary efforts have yielded very helpful information. Our school is a large suburban high school in our fourth year of 1:1 iPads. Students here are accustomed to using tablets for class work. However, our survey of two classes of 12th graders revealed that 41% of the students still preferred print (although they would read either). Twenty-five percent preferred print only, and only 6% of those in this particular survey preferred ebooks exclusively. An informal whiteboard assessment we did showed our students from all grades preferring print 2 to 1 over ebooks. Informal conversations with librarians across the country indicate similar sorts of habits on their campuses. There is clearly a gap between public perceptions about the reading habits of the digital generation and their actual reading habits.

Forty percent of students we surveyed who download books are doing it via the web, and only 3% are downloading e-titles from their public or school library. In our local interviews, avid ebook users preferred the immediacy of ebooks, liked the ability to search within a book, especially for groups of books read in class, and liked carrying the library with them. More casual readers indicated not understanding the library apps, only buying ebooks if they are required, and preferring leisure reading in print. Some commented on the ambiance of print, preferring print for “cozy” fireside-type reading.

And Why?

Why weren’t students utilizing more library ebooks at the campus? Survey respondents indicated that they didn’t know what was available, didn’t know how to access the apps, or found the apps were more difficult to use than just buying the book, presumably through Amazon.

This aligns with reasons for adoption in the Diffusion of Innovation theory. Among other things, “Potential adopters evaluate an innovation on its relative advantage (the perceived efficiencies gained by the innovation relative to current tools or procedures), its compatibility with the pre-existing system, its complexity or difficulty to learn, its trialability or testability,” etc. ( For these adopters, the convenience of using ebooks is not outweighed by the inconvenience of ebook apps, particularly library ebook apps, evidently.

All of this is not to say that ebooks will not continue to grow in use and popularity. The lure of immediacy and the convenience will grow. The Diffusion of Innovation theory identifies the stage of critical mass, in which something triggers more widespread adoption. There will undoubtedly be a tipping point for students and schools—a new, easier-to-use service; the ability for a future elibrary to be stored on a single device; easier apps; etc. But while we anticipate and attempt to build our collections for the future, we are also serving the students we have now and need to understand their user profile and preferences. Additionally, the more we know, the better we can advocate with vendors for ebook services that really resonate with our students.

The last portion of our local survey dealt with publicity. We quickly discovered students surveyed were not highly aware of library ebooks, despite in our particular case, a multivaried and extensive approach to getting the word out.


So where does this leave us as librarians? First, it is clear that more student feedback is needed from more libraries. Questions remain that I hope to answer more fully in the future. Are students who use 1:1 tablets in the classroom tired of reading on them by the time they have leisure time? Do they prefer the perceived “warmth” of print? Why have they been quicker to embrace electronic music than electronic books as a main source of delivery? Is the platform just not there yet? Are there too many school ebook platforms, so it is too confusing? Are library ebook apps too “schoolly” for students? Do librarians get enamored of things such as QR codes for publicity that aren’t a hit with our high school students?

What about library publicity of ebooks (or any other programs, for that matter)? What resonates better with students? How would student-to-student or teacher-to-student publicity help? What is the role teachers play in ebook implementation? Administrators?

We are planning to convene a student focus group to drill down particularly into publicity efforts and how to make them more effective on the students’ “radar,” so to speak.

As the number of etext products expand rapidly, having enough information to help us move forward not just on instinct but with a little data in hand, seems critical.

What Next?

It seems more and more crucial for vendors to start unifying around some central platforms, which is, perhaps, the future of the online catalog. Regardless which vendor serves up the book, or which publisher produced it, students need an easy, consistent access point. Vendors need to stop expecting that student readers are going to download large numbers of ebook apps for different services. OverDrive’s recent release of a web-based ebook is a positive move.

Also, the entryway into the checkout process needs to be simple and clear. Most ebook services act as if theirs are the only products students in a school will be using. That means each service has its own features, logins, bookmarks, note-taking tools, etc. It’s like the teacher who piles on too much homework as if a student doesn’t have six other classes. Vendors, librarians, and administrators need to have a better understanding of what students are
really doing.

The Diffusion of Innovation theory does lend a few clues as to how to proceed. Rogers suggests that when adopters have more social status within a group, they have more influence. Innovation is encouraged when early adopters are provided with positive benefits, or when an instinctive desire is created for the product (witness any Apple ad, for example). For librarians, perhaps the lesson here is to encourage and highlight early adopters of ebooks (contests, games, incentives) or find students who are leaders to help publicize products within the school. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should push a product students clearly don’t want. But our students will be encountering more and more etexts, so helping grow their comfort level early will give them a head start as they enter college and beyond, if we are to continue to encourage their lifelong literacy in a tech-driven future.

Clearly, we need to take opportunities to understand what our students’ behaviors are telling us, and share input with vendors and designers of products. After all, we want easy
to-use products that benefit our schools the most. So for all of us, the question is, “What are your students telling you about ebooks?”


Contact Carolyn Foote at

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