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Dr Mike J Smith
Kingston University

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Experiences in using the Kindle

Thu, 20 Jan 2011

So some initial experiences in working with the Kindle..... I don't read many novels and, if you borrow heavily from a library, then this isn't for you. You have to buy books (unless they are free from copyright). But that wasn't why I bought a Kindle. Rather how good would it be for reading journal articles and marking student essays. The answer is somewhat more mixed and is also heavily linked to file formats. Out-of-the-box there is support for MobiPocket (MOBI,PRC) which Amazon bought back in 2005, their own AZW, Topaz (TPZ) and text files. These donot have the idea of a page per se, so you change font size and spacing and then get the text to reflow. Of course when it comes to reading journal articles and essays they won't be in these formats (and there certainly isn't any support for Word documents!). PDFs are by far the most common distribution medium, but these are directly linked to page size; it is a physical description of a single page which means text can't reflow and therefore text size and spacing can't be changed. What you see is what you get and because the Kindle screen is sized for a standard novel, anything bigger needs some kind of compromise to maintain the same reading experience (unless you go and buy the Kindle DX!). Of course you could put up with the smaller text. Most journals seem to print at either A4 or something akin to Metric Crown Quarto (not sure exactly what the page size is though). 12-pt type on A4 reproduces reasonably well and is certainly readable. Many journals have switched to newspaper-style columns on A4 and this is certainly too small.

As I suggested in the earlier post, you can simply rotate the screen and this makes A4 pages eminently readable, although again not newspaper columns. Kindles allow you to zoom in and out and then scroll around the screen. Unfortunately they split the screen up in to "regions" and if you column spans a region you will constantly be flipping backwards and forwards to read it. Another option would have been to "remove" the whitespace (or border) around the edge of the page. Many PDFs will come with the default 1" on either side. "Auto-zooming" to remove these would help, but unfortunately PDF support is still in early days (it was introduced November 2009) and won't do this. Which means that reading newspaper columns is not satisfactory.

What about student essays? Well my students submit PDFs directly to Turn It In which are then made available for download. They are all A4 and usually use the default Microsoft Word formatting: which means 12pt or 11pt Arial type. Certainly no problem reading that in landscape on the kindle. Of course the alternative is to stipulate the use of a template. I put this together principally using these suggestions (for vertical page viewing):

  • 8.5 cm wide x 11.4 cm tall and 0 margin. View as "fit-to-width".
  • "Fit-to-width" affects font size, but the template seems pretty close to a good reading size. I selected 9pt, with a line spacing using a 1.15 multiplier
  • It was tempting to go for 12pt; this seemed big to me. I was also conscious that students often put figures in and the relative font/page size might limit this. I'll make this an option to see if students prefer this.

The Kindle also allows you to make notes in the document. This is all very well and good except that you cant feed this back unless the student has a Kindle reader or software (for example Windows or Android). Again, something for future trials.

All of the above is focused upon my use of the Kindle, but there seems to be increasingly traction amongst students. For our distance learning MSc there is potentially the option to make Kindle's available to students, pre-loaded with introductory materials, modules and text books. Even better, because of the "push" nature of linked email address, new documents can be sent directly to the devices. This really does start to open up all sorts of opportunities.

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