Interacting with Texts

I see the consummate iPad reading experience to be one that is, on the surface, traditional: heavily textual, quiet, hand-held. But lurking beneath the words is the whole Internet, ready to be questioned — “Find other works that quoted this,” “Where was the Marshalsea prison?”, “Which of my friends is also reading this?”, “What is that attractive person across from me reading?”

None of that requires a publisher to “enhance” the e-book prior to publication. A truly modern e-reader is one that is intimately connected to the Web and allows a user to make queries as a series of asides, while reading or after immersive reading has ended … No e-reader software fulfills this vision just yet, but the stage is set.


I saw the above quote in an aggregate opinion piece at the New York Times today and thought I’d share some thoughts and reflect on the tension at play in the notion of a potentially forthcoming interactive reading opportunity. Let me start by saying that I have not read a full book on my iPad yet — I have read a few on the Kindle, but other than a children’s book I have not consumed one for myself on the iPad. I have browsed through pages of content and have appreciated some of the subtle touches … most notably the built in dictionary that is really quite useful. But that’s not where we need to end up.

The quote above suggests that we start to consider the potential for social actions associated with reading that have yet to be introduced. I think it is easy to imagine a way to touch a paragraph and find out what others may have said about it, passages like it, or (as the quoted author suggests) to share it with the world. I think we all assume the notion of the eBook is flawed for education because of limitations not present in the real world — a notable example is an easy and elegant way to annotate a book quickly and easily while reading it. The author above hints at things that are well beyond what might make reading a digital text really useful and interesting.

Imagine being able to not only tap a paragraph of text in a digital textbook to flip it over to add annotations, but to then be able to instantly send those annotations into a cloud based service where they could be shared for all sorts of reasons. Imagine being an instructor being able to easily collect reading notes from students in one location that are flowing in from the text itself … or to be part of a literature class all building a shared reflective text … or being a humanities scholar working with collaborators across the globe analyzing a digitized text.

All of these scenarios require the most basic of functions — the ability to bookmark, highlight, and annotate texts — but they also push us to envision how the best of social tools could be integrated into the reading experience in new ways. I would personally love to be able to see what my students would do in the construction of a dynamic, discipline specific knowledge base with tools like that. Having the ability to do things like this from within the workflow is what will help set a device like the iPad apart in education. If students are forced to leave their workflow to take notes (dump out of a book and open Evernote) then we are taking a step back from the physical world. But, if you instead come at this as an interesting feature — not only stay in the context of the book to take notes, but also have the ability to push those notes live into a non-device specific space on the Internet that others can take advantage of I think you’d be making a real step towards enhancing the teaching and learning experience.

I’m not much for interactive texts in the way we’ve come to expect — text with Flash (or whatever) objects embedded, but I would be very excited to see a text that I and my research group could use to interact with each other through.

3 thoughts on “Interacting with Texts

  1. Cole, your comments are important here. They resonnate with those I posted here: Closing the Digital Research Circle. I really hope we can see an integrated solution soon for annotating ebooks and PDF files, sharing those annotations and keeping them with the files themselves and their bibliographic information.

  2. Initially I thought that pdf fulfilled a lot of your needs. I still think it might, and we’ve yet to really explore pdf in the ways that it’s used in a corporate environment. I can’t help feeling exploring it and its potential now would be a waste of time. I think pdf will survive as the workhorse for print delivery, but for anything that will be primarily digital and involve discussion and social interaction, it sure looks like the future is with formats like epub that function on iPad like devices. Even now, dropping out of a book in the reader to use evernote hardly causes a hitch in your stride with the iPad’s perpetually running desktop. And this is just iPad 1.0. It’s easy to see Comment or Share in the list that comes up when you tap on a word.

  3. Chris, what I am hoping for is a more tightly integrated set of features that does just what you suggest — close the research workflow gap. I am also really interested to see how aggressive Apple is at really making the iPad a truly innovative tool that supports students’ academic workflow. It already has the killer battery life that will make a huge difference in schools … Imagine if it had really tightly integrated tools that could support the kind of work we are thinking about.
    Dave, I think you are right — I could easily envision a share button popping up in a contextual menu. Perhaps I am being too short sighted on PDF but I have always found them to be very difficult to work with. I say that with little effort applied to really understanding the potential. I would think that going forward we need the ability to work solo, annotating and marking up texts, but have the potential to move all of that out of the text and into my own personal repository of sorts. Dreams at the moment.

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