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The development of life-long reading and research practices among students is core business for school libraries. The changing learning ecology in schools has redefined the way in which school libraries build their collections to support and extend students’ learning and recreational reading (O’Connell, Bales & Mitchell, 2015). Despite early indicators that the uptake and use of eBooks in society may result in the death of print books (Merga, 2015), the adoption and use of eBooks in K-12 schools, particularly in Australia, remains steady and transitional. The 2015 Softlink survey of Australian school libraries found that 34% of schools had purchased eBooks in the previous year, an increase from 30% and 28% in 2014 and 2013 respectively. Increasingly schools and school libraries, particularly at secondary level, are allocating more funding to the acquisition of eBooks for students. This case study will examine secondary students’ use of school library supplied eBooks for study and recreational reading purposes at a Melbourne girls’ school. Data was acquired through an online survey. The findings suggest that overall, while students were aware of the school library providing access to eBooks, they overwhelming preferred to use print books especially for recreational reading. The data were comparable with results to the literature pertaining to the use of eBooks at university level due to a lack of secondary school research.
- Nature & Context of Case Study
This single, exploratory case study (Yin, 2014) presents an empirical inquiry investigating the extent to which Years 7-10 students use the school library’s eBooks for study and recreational reading purposes at an all-girls independent school. The investigation was established to discover the degree of use of the school library’s eBook collection, students’ reading preferences and to identify the barriers that may prevent students from using the collection. The underlying goal was to understand why students use, or do not use, the library’s eBook collection and to determine whether more targeted intervention was required.
For the purpose of this study eBooks, also known as electronic books, are digital versions of traditional print books that can be read on a laptop, desktop, eReader or mobile device with its associated hardware and software to download and read the eBook (Agnew, 2013; Sadokierski, 2013). Due to the scope of this study eBooks will not include eAudio books, eTextbooks or iPad apps.
The school under study is an independent K-12 school in Melbourne with an enrolment of 2100 students. The school has a long-standing history of 1:1 computing and today has a 1:1 program with iPads for Prep-Year 2 and laptops from Years 3-12. The school has two libraries. This study will focus on the eBooks provided by the secondary school library (the Walton Library). The secondary library has prioritised the purchasing of eBooks and other digital resources to support 21st century learning as outlined in its draft Resources Management Policy (Appendix 1) and attempt to achieve the Australian Library & Information Association’s (ALIA) projection of an 80:20 ratio of print to electronic collection by 2020 (ALIA, 2015). The school would consider the Walton Library to be an “early adopter” (Rogers, 2003) of eBook technology having purchased its first eBooks in 2011. As of 1 September, 2016, the library held approximately 9400 fiction and 12,150 non-fiction print books and provided access to over 720,000 eBooks based on various subscription and purchasing models (Appendix 2). Titles are added to the library catalogue and embedded on assignment research guides on the library website. Students can also access eBooks by searching individual platforms.
- Processes Involved in Completing the Case Study
3.1 Literature Review
A literature review was conducted to identify previous research on the topic of secondary school students’ use of eBooks and reading preferences. It was important to position the proposed case study within the existing body of scholarly work and to identify gaps in the pool of knowledge that could be addressed (Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier, 2013; Leedy & Ormrod, 2016).
Scholarly research, both Australian and international, on students’ use of school library eBooks and reading preferences is limited (Merga, 2014) and most of what has been published is not peer reviewed. In contrast, a wider body of literature exists in higher education. The research existing in K-12 education is commercially sponsored by eBook and library management system vendors (Softlink, 2015; School Library Journal, 2015). These two studies provide a snapshot of what is happening with eBooks in school libraries in America and Australia respectively with school libraries slowly incorporating more eBooks in their collections. Scholastic Australia’s 2015 research relating to students’ use of and preference for eBooks over print books was contained within a larger research study relating to children’s reading behaviours. Additional studies (Foley, 2012; Picton & Clark, 2015) undertook a more general study into students’ eBook use in the classroom and explored how digital reading had improved their literacy levels and enjoyment of reading. In future it may be important for more peer-reviewed research be conducted relating to K-12 students’ use of eBooks and reading preferences, which is free of industry sponsorship, to reduce any potential bias while increasing the research’s validity and reliability (Lodico, Spaulding & Voegtle, 2010). An additional theme to emerge from the literature explores how eBook reading promotes digital literacy practices and helps students better understand the texts they are reading due to the multimodal features and interactive tools (Larson, 2009; Larson, 2010; Larson, 2015). Finally, the widest range of peer-reviewed scholarly literature on students’ research and reading habits using eBooks and student reading preferences (Foasberg, 2014; Gilbert & Fister, 2015; Hobbs & Klare, 2015; Chan, Poe, Potter, Quigley, & Wilson, 2011; Millar & Schrier, 2015) relates to the tertiary sector. Findings from these studies clearly indicate that tertiary students have a strong preference for print texts in academic and leisurely reading over eBooks despite the convenience and ability to take notes and annotate. The more expansive scholarly research base from tertiary institutions compared to school libraries is perhaps due to academic libraries embracing eBooks at an earlier stage (Dorian, 2011).
The case study used a qualitative research design incorporating both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques, including a survey and literature review. The investigation was designed to better understand the reading habits and preferences of Years 7-10 students in the use (or not) of the school library’s eBook collection. The teachers (four in total) of two classes at each year level from Years 7-10 from a range of subjects were asked to take part in the study. Students in Years 11 and 12 were not included due to assessment schedules during the final two weeks of Term 3 when the data was collected.
An anonymous survey comprising quantitative and qualitative questions using Google Forms (Appendix 3) was devised and access provided to the four teachers and their students via class pages on the Canvas Learning Management System. Google Forms was chosen survey tool because there was no limit to the number of respondents or questions. There were also a variety of question types, such as drop down, check box, multiple choice and short answer, that could be used. The check box and drop down options allowed for expedient and timely data collection and easier quantification of respondents’ attitudes and behaviours (Leedy & Ormrod, 2016). The short answer, qualitative questions, were designed to allow students to expand upon their reasons for using, or not, of the library’s eBooks. Google Forms provided a summary of responses in a spreadsheet (Appendix 4) that allowed the descriptive statistics to emerge for analysis.
To accurately collate and summarise the data on the size of the print and eBook collections, the ‘Collections Snapshot’ (Appendix 2) was devised. This provided an overview of all the eBooks and eBook platforms the students have access to via the various subscription models.
- Critical Evaluation – Findings
In response to the survey, 140 students of the 184 who received the survey completed the questionnaire resulting in a 76% response rate. Thirty-four students at both Years 7 and 10 and thirty-six students at both Years 8 and 9 undertook the survey. Eighty percent of students stated they were aware that eBooks were offered by the Walton Library. But overall the results clearly demonstrate that students have a clear use of, and preference for, the library’s printed books as opposed to eBooks for both study and recreational reading. The findings of this study will be discussed around the following themes: students’ use of eBooks for research and recreational reading; students’ reading preferences; perceived barriers to eBook adoption; and library support.
4.1 Students’ use of eBooks for research & recreational reading
When asked whether they used the school library’s eBooks for academic study, the majority of students (60%) indicated that they did not use the collection. However, 40% do use eBooks from Gale, EBL, Ebsco and InfoBase. Upon breaking down the statistics into year levels, which can be seen in Figure 1, it is evident that Years 7 and 8 students are less likely to use eBooks when undertaking research for their school assignments compared to Year 9 and 10 students. This could be due to the older students having had more time to experience eBooks in the preceding years.
When students were asked about whether they use the library’s eBooks for recreational (fiction) reading, they overwhelming indicated (87%) that they did not use the Wheeler’s eBook platform. The year level breakdown can be seen in Figure 2. This indicates that students require explicit instruction on how to use the platform and encouragement to bring their eReaders to school.
4.2 Students’ reading preferences
The reading preferences of Years 7-10 students when undertaking research for school assignments and recreational reading paint an informative picture. Figure 3 below reports that 62% of students prefer print books for academic study with only 11% preferring eBooks. Interestingly 26% indicated that they had no preference for one book format over another. But when it came to recreational reading (Figure 4) an overwhelming number of students (85%) preferred to read print fiction books. Only 4.3% of students preferred eBooks and almost 11% were content reading both eBooks and print books.
When further queried (Qs 7&9) to provide reasons for their reading preferences for study and recreational reading (or lack thereof) common themes emerged. For students who preferred print books for their research and recreational reading, they frequently cited favouring hard copies of books for the tactile feel and the immersive experience of reading fiction; the ease and familiarity with finding information within printed books and flipping pages; comprehension was easier in print; the lack of distractions; difficulties in screen reading; eye strain; more effective note taking from print; the enjoyment of and relaxation associated with reading print books; and the ease of access from the library and keeping track of the number of pages read. For student responses see Appendix 4. The comments below provide a snapshot depicting students’ reading preferences.
- “I prefer everything in hard copy. Usually, all our work is on the computer, switching between an eBook and a word document is annoying, unlike having a hard copy book that you can just refer to on the side of your computer.”
- “Reading fiction is meant to be a pleasurable and enjoyable experience. Reading from my laptop is not pleasurable as I am using the laptop each day … At night the last thing I want to do is read from a screen especially my laptop. Reading from my iPhone is too small.”
- “When reading in eBook form I don’t process the words.”
The students who had no preference for either print or digital format were content to study and read recreationally in both reading environments. Students enjoyed the experience of reading print books while acknowledging the convenience and accessibility that eBooks provided. This student’s response sums up the importance of being open-minded about using both reading platforms:
- “I am willing, and happy to use any resource that can help with my projects/assignments, and answer any questions I have, regardless of its format.”
The few students who preferred eBooks did so because the format was more convenient and accessible at home and simultaneously by the class. Of note this student wrote:
- “I prefer ebooks because I can read them anywhere and they aren’t as heavy if they’re on my phone.”
4.3 Perceived barriers to eBook adoption
The students were asked to identify the reasons that prevented them using the school library’s eBook collection for study and recreational reading. The results can be seen in Figures 5 and 6 below. The top 3 reasons given that prevented students from using the library’s eBooks were the fact that students simply preferred the experience of reading print books (62%), difficulties in taking notes, annotating, highlighting and bookmarking (46%), and difficulties comprehending information from eBooks (44%). Other prominent barriers include screen reading difficulties, searching and navigating within eBooks.
Students who would not use the library’s eBooks for recreational reading expressed similar barriers to reading eBooks. Again the majority of students preferred the experience of reading print (61%) and referred to screen reading and comprehension difficulties (44%) and (36%) respectively as barriers to eBook adoption.
4.4 Library support
Students were given the opportunity (Q 13) to inform the teacher librarians on what assistance they needed to support them to use the library’s eBook collection. Table 1 below provides a categorised summary of student responses. Despite a large number of students not responding or suggesting no further help was required to use the library’s eBook collection (30), overwhelmingly the survey indicates that students do need more targeted instruction. Students have specifically indicated that they need further assistance in using, accessing, searching and navigating within the eBooks and various platforms. More promotion and clearer written instructions may also encourage them to use eBooks. Several students indicated that subject teachers should be encouraged to take their classes to the library.
“Maybe the teacher librarian can suggest to my English teacher that we have time during my English class’ wider reading lesson to … teach us how to use the eBooks for reading fiction”.
- Critical Evaluation – Discussion
eBooks are becoming more central and common to learning and education at all levels (Vasileiou, Rowley & Hartley, 2013). Despite the popularity of eReading and the use of eReaders within the public (Perrin, 2016) the majority of Years 7-10 students in this study demonstrated that they are unlikely to use the Walton Library’s eBooks for their study and recreational reading. A strong preference for print books emerged particularly for reading fiction. These results are consistent with previous K-12 and tertiary-level research into students’ use of eBooks which suggests that students are inclined to read printed texts over eBooks (Baron, 2013; Baron, 2015; Foasberg, 2014; Jeong, 2010; Merga, 2015; Merga, 2014; Miller & Schrier, 2015) for school work and reading for pleasure. Furthermore, the Australian Kids and Family Reading Report states that 79% of children aged 6-17 “will always want to read print books, even though there are eBooks available” (Scholastic Australia, 2016). It is not surprising that students preferred print for recreational reading because at this 1:1 laptop school they may do so to escape the heavy use of laptops at school. The predominant reasons the students preferred print books over eBooks were the physical characteristics and comfort associated with books that made reading more pleasurable, students felt they comprehended and concentrated better, they experienced difficulties in screen reading and were less distracted when reading print.
The study’s findings align with Abram’s (2010) view that students prefer the tactile and sensory interaction and the aesthetics associated with print books. Students enjoyed the ease of studying and/or reading print because they liked being able to highlight and take notes in book margins and judge where they were in a book based on the number of pages left. Laptop screens and eReaders pose navigational issues as they cannot replicate the same tactile experiences such as the physical turning of pages to find specific passages. The clicking of buttons or scrolling of pages on screen, particularly with long texts, are less satisfying and may inhibit reading comprehension (Jabr, 2013) and the enjoyment of reading.
Many students who did not, or preferred not to, use eBooks believed that their comprehension and concentration levels were reduced because they were more distracted when reading eBooks compared to reading print-based texts. Barron (2015) asserts that the print environment enhances students’ concentration with 92% of respondents in her study believing they concentrated better and retained and understood information more when they read print, particularly for longer academic reading. When reading digitally people tend to skim and scan around the screen for a shorter time looking for keywords which detracts from their ability to focus and read deeply (Jabr, 2013; Liu, 2005), thus impeding their comprehension. Many students reported being easily distracted when using the school library’s eBooks because they could engage in social media or other websites easily. Further, students also commented on the eye strain associated with reading eBooks. Screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than paper-based reading (Jabr, 2013).
The students reported that they needed support from the teacher librarians to assist their information search within eBooks and ways to navigate and use these resources. Teaching students the ability to search within and across eBook content using keywords (Chan et al., 2011) is vital in encouraging them to better use eBooks for their school work. Educators need to adapt their literacy pedagogies and to include digital literacy skills and strategies required for students to find information and comprehend content effectively in eBooks (Felvegi & Matthew, 2012; Leu et al., 2011). Students could benefit from ongoing information about the availability and functionality of eBooks, such as text highlighting and note taking.
Conclusions & Recommendations
The literacy skills students use to read print does not automatically transfer to the effective reading of eBooks. For students to read more widely and to thrive in their academic studies it is important to normalise the acceptance and use of eBooks as an essential component of the research process (King, 2014) and reading program. This case study has greatly assisted the Walton Library teacher librarians to gain an insight into the students’ lack of uptake, and interest, in using the library’s extensive eBook collection. Despite being immersed in the digital environment, it is evident from this study that students have a clear preference for print books because it is a format they are most experienced and comfortable (Johnson & Buck, 2014).
Students at the school need continued support and learning opportunities to develop their skills and confidence in using eBooks. To achieve this the teacher librarians, in collaboration with teachers, need to provide more targeted digital literacy instruction that not only develops students’ online reading skills in locating, evaluating and synthesising information within eBooks but also how to use the various eBook features. This includes teaching keyword search strategies, skimming and scanning techniques, teaching screen navigation, altering text and font size, and how to use the various tools including text highlighting and annotating, using the text-to-speech function and text translation. Such digital literacy instruction is an essential skill as more tests, such as NAPLAN, are delivered online in digital form (Myrberg & Wieberg, 2015).
It is also recommended that subject teachers also reinforce the use of eBooks, particularly for study purposes, when working on assignments. English teachers, as part of the Years 7 and 8 reading program, should encourage students to bring their devices, such as iPads or eReaders, to class so students can read fiction eBooks via the Wheelers platform.
It is hoped that over time students will be more inclined to engage and use the various eBooks and eBook platforms on offer, but great challenges lay ahead to enable this content to be more visible, accessible and attractive to students at the secondary level. eBooks are a big part of this school library’s collection. While continuing to provide access to thousands of eBooks via several platforms, it is important for the school and teacher librarians to be “aware of students continued desire to read from print” (Cull, 2011).
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NB: The Appendix has been omitted from this post.