Category: edtech

The (indefinite) digital transition

By almost all available metrics the publishing industry is being turned on its head. We all have seen headlines like “eBooks overtake paper books” or “Apple kills the textbook.” Administrations all over the country are talking about an iPad pilot or a BYOD policy.

Clearly tools like Kindle, iPad, and JSTOR are resources that have laid the foundation for this digital revolution. Some people, like McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby, believe there is imminent “total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems.” There are many factors driving the use of eBooks, including access, portability, environmental sustainability, distribution and what I refer to as “eBook benefits” (search-ability, quick annotations, sharing). In aggregate publishing statistics, the eBook is clearly winning – Amazon has been selling more digital copies than print copies since mid-2011.

But what is the current state of print vs. digital within higher education? Apple may claim an iBook revolution, but three generations into the iPad, has this revolution arrived? To sum up the findings of the following survey, far from it.

Educause 2012
Game Changers Business Plan Competition

This fall, I presented an overview of my app eHighlighter (a personal research assistant that uses your iPhone’s camera to bring “eBook benefits to Paper Sources”) at the Educause Game Changers business plan competition in Denver. I created this survey (and its methodology) with the hope of having some quick numbers to reference on my Prezi. Almost 3,700 results later, however, I recognize that I had some pretty legitimate data.

Survey Methodology

When students are accepted to college, one of their first steps may be to join a “University ABC Class of 2016” Facebook group. These groups often reach 90%+ participation rates and can contain thousands of members. Occasionally they are university controlled (or require the applicable .edu address to join), but, more often than not all you need to join the group is an “accept” from the group admin, who is probably a student.

Sorry for Spamming
(honesty is the only policy)

After a few hours of requesting membership into every group with over ~1,000 members for search terms “Class of 2016, ’15, ’14,” I had been accepted into 180 groups. After 5 minutes I had received almost 40 responses; after an hour, over 1,000 responses.

After the posting the message above across all the groups I was admitted to, I ended up with 3,698 respondents across over 180 colleges and universities. The respondents came from large and small, public and private, geographically diverse colleges and universities.

Class of
Over 180 Colleges Represented

(The newer the class, the more recently the group was created, the are more active the members. This accounts for the disproportionate responses.)

“Academic Reading Preferences” Results

There are two factors holding up the digital transition, supply and demand. Here is the current demand landscape:

Question 1: What is your preferred method for academic readings?

Q1 Results

Well that wasn’t even close. A whopping 77% of students still want to read from a paper source. I have to say that the results did confirm my intuition, and most people I ask which method is most preferred guess paper as well (except the people who say tablet, sorry guys you’re wayyy off). But did you really think it was this stark a contrast?

It is interesting to note that this paper preference is not an access issue. If you filter the results by the 1,090 students who said they were tablet owners (iPad, Android Tablet, or Kindle), there is almost an identical preference profile:

Tablet Owner Profile

Question 2: Why?

I’ll start by saying I could have done a better job structuring this follow-up question, as my distracting multiple choice option “Ease of Use” took about 90% of the responses.

But luckily 632 responded in free form. Here is a sample of those responses

Q1 Response:

Paper Digital
• Less distracting. • Search capabilities
• The existence of the internet interferes with my ability to focus. • Ctrl+F
• I get distracted on the computer/other electronics. Also I can highlight and take notes easily in a book. • Easy to scroll through/ can search for specific words
• Easier for my eyes • Availability
• I like being able to hold the paper and highlight and take notes on the reading itself. • I payed for this computer why not use it for everything I possibly can.
• It makes it easier to learn because you can annotate the text. • Environmentally friendly and efficient


Students who prefer paper are not technology-phobes, late adopters, or just out of touch, they have legitimate reasons to study off of a paper source. Any time a student is on their computer, tablet, or phone, they are only one click away from an hour-long detour down their Facebook newsfeed. Physical books also allow for reading with a highlighter, creating marginalia, and recalling the spatial location of an important passage.

There is also a clearly inertia behind papers prevailing dominance. While digitalization is taking place and the current college generation grew up with a desktop, even the earliest technology adopters have spent almost their entire literary life, from Hooked on Phonics to AP Biology, reading off of paper. This historical bias will eventually erode as tablets make their way into Kindergartens, but if the higher ed landscape is still a paper majority, I can’t imagine the average primary school classroom with tablets anytime soon.

At the same time, students are also starting to realize that there are some great “eBook benefits” available that can often outweigh the paper benefits. It can take hours to transcribe highlights over to a Word document, while Kindle highlights can do it in seconds. Have a joint research project? Email those notes and highlights to your group. Need a quote about from Thomas Jefferson to back up your paragraph on the Declaration of Independence? Just search “Jefferson” in your Evernote. Are you really benefitting from the hours creating that bibliography? Not exactly. Enter Zotero, Mendeley and

There are a myriad of inefficiencies in knowledge transfer (aka learning) from paper. I think we can all agree that e-mail has a slight edge over the USPS. My whole thesis behind eHighlighter was that more students will start to recognize these digital benefits, they will start to expect them across their entire research process, even from paper. In its current form, eHighlighter is a tool that helps blend these two preference profiles. It’s not a 100 year solution (neither was the fax machine), but it is a useful tool for this indefinite digital transition.

Question 3: About what percentage of your academic reading THIS YEAR is from a paper source?

Preference is one thing, but what is it like in practice? On average, respondents said that 65% of their classroom reading for this academic year occurs on a paper format (print outs, book, textbook, journals, etc.)

As compared to last year, 50% of respondents said they are reading “more digital,” while 25% said “more paper,” and 25% said no change.

Clearly the trend will continue increasingly towards digital formats in the coming years. But do we really see a day in the immediate future when students, even if they want to, will be able to go 100% digital? Demand is only one part of the equation.

On the supply side, only 11% of books have been digitized to date, and copyright concerns are stalling complete digitalization. Additionally, academic institutions across the globe have million volume libraries that will take decades to obsolesce. Popular Mechanics recent list of “110 Predictions” puts the Library of Congress in our pockets somewhere between 2023-2062. In other words, as long as we’re using “apps” on “phones”, you will still have to get at least some of your research from paper sources.

Question 4: Which of the following do you own?

While this next set of data may not be perfectly in line with the theme of the post, it is compelling nonetheless – especially considering the sample size:

Device Profile

The survey shows that 80% of higher ed students today own a smart phone. While Android owns over 50% market share in activations, iPhone clearly dominates in the college market.

One takeaway is that developers/businesses looking to target the largest number of college students should probably start with an iOS app.

Oh, and no one owns a tablet.


I am by no means trying to argue for a pedagogical supremacy of paper sources or trying to say that their presence will last forever. I am definitely excited about the direction that #edtech is going and will continue to support, promote adoption of, and hopefully invent transformative digital technologies for the classroom. ll I’m saying is that we’re not there yet. Again, we’re only 3 years into the iPad. It’s not like the textbook reshaped education in 1443.

My road to entrepreneurship, #edtech and eHighlighter

I started my first business, AllCollegeStorage, six years ago when I was a Freshman at Amherst College. In 2012, AllCollegeStorage provided summer storage and shipping to 14 colleges and boarding schools throughout the East Coast. While the business is going great, it is highly seasonal around the beginning and end of the school year, which has always allowed me to have additional bandwidth. At the beginning of my Junior year of College, I also started a sister company, AllCollegeLaundry, and joined the two together under the parent company All College, Inc. Facing graduation in May 2011, I had to decide if I was going to stick with the entrepreneurial route, or head off to banking or consulting like many of my peers. As you can tell, I chose the former.

Even though All College grew 150% last year (my first at it full time – without the distractions of schoolwork, college life, or varsity lacrosse), I had some new found time to think, look, and yes, start another venture.

While All College is my baby, and I am passionate about the entrepreneurial path in almost any direction, logistics itself is not something I am particularly passionate about. As any one who knows me can tell you, I am passionate about technology, and perhaps mobile devices specifically.

Where it all started – tech snob since age 7

I put all of the blame for being a tech snob on my father (in the best way possible). When I was a child, he was always getting the latest PDA. I would play with it when it was new, and then inherit it myself when he moved on to a newer model. Anyone remember 1994’s Motorola Envoy? That was my first PDA (I was 7). When the Palm Pilot v1.1 came out, I became the owner of v1.0, and was bringing it to class in the 4th grade. That evolution continued with the first wireless Palm Pilot (7th grade), the iPAQs (high school), and finally reached a great culmination with the iPad my senior year of college.

I think it was those first PDAs, and my application of them in the classroom, that cemented my passion for what we call #edtech. My stance on technology is that anything that can be outsourced to technology absolutely should be outsourced to technology. Here’s my favorite illustrating example. Some people say that they do not like a GPS because it makes them worse at getting around when they do not have one. My response – do you feel the same way about a map? The wheel surely makes us worse at carrying heavy stuff when we don’t have one, but I think we can all agree on the beneficial merits of the wheel use.

I’ll admit, I get a lot of eye rolls to that spiel. Is using a wheelbarrow really the same thing as an iPhone in the classroom? Should tech be in the classroom at all? My take is that there is NOTHING new about technology in the classroom. Technology in learning is as old as pedagogy itself…chalk, the printing press, the written word and even language itself are examples of technology.

Our primary biological advantage as humans is our ability to innovate – to assemble all the patterns, categories, and resources at our disposal in novel ways. Outsourcing tasks away from our “meat brains” to technology (like Evernote is trying to do with memory), it allows us to reduce our cognitive load. This freedom then allows us to do what technology cannot – come up with new ideas, to see the world in a way no one else has, to write a paper that has never been written before.

In the immediate future, every student will have a smartphone in their pocket, and with them at all times. We just need the mobile apps to support these students in productive ways. (For further information on this topic check out Project Information Literacy’s study “How College Students Manage Technology“)

Which brings me to the topic of my new startup, Research Habits Digital. While I believe mobile applications in the classroom has (and will have) nearly ubiquitous application, we have to start somewhere. Our current focus is on optimizing the discovery, research, and collaboration process. Clearly tools like Kindle, iPad, and JSTOR are resources that have laid the foundation for this digital revolution. This adoption of complete digitalization is perhaps a precursor to a next level of collaboration tools. While some, like McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby believe there is imminent “total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems”, we don’t see it that way. The fact is the majority of academic research is still done on paper. This delay stems from two factors – supply and demand.

Supply side – only 11% of books have been scanned to date, and copyright concerns are stalling complete digitalization. And its not just books that will need to be digitized. For example, of the 55 million objects in circulation in the the New York Public Library (the largest circulating collection in the world), only 20 million of them are books. Furthermore, every academic institution in the world has a multitude of paper sources that will take decades to obsolesce.

Demand side – in a recent survey I conducted of 3,962 higher ed students across 180 colleges, a whopping 77% said they preferred studying from paper (19% computer, 3.5% tablet). This was not an access issue – if you cross section the 500 respondents who own iPads, 71% still prefer reading from paper. While preference does not always match practice, respondents said that 65% of their reading actually occurs from a paper source. What did they like about paper? It was less distracting, easier to read, and easier to highlight. What did respondents like about computer? Search-ability and note taking ability.

Launched August 2012

Joining these two worlds in the goal of our first product eHighlighter. Our motto “eBooks benefits. Paper sources.” means students can read from the available and preferred paper media, while getting the digital benefits they desire like search-ability, easy annotations, citation management, and collaboration. The App uses your iPhones camera to allow readers to highlight, annotate, and share their notes.

eHighlighter launched on the App Store at the end of August. We quickly reached 10,000 users and have a 4.5 star rating on the store. And while the app is fully functional, it is our MVP, and I might even go so far as to say it is a public beta. The product is currently free for download and unlimited use. We are now working hard on our first feature release, which will include the most called for features and some UI refinements.

We certainly have a multitude of directions that we could go with this product, and a backlog of feature requests, including calls for an Android edition. We hope to continue to release additional features and products as we move forward, but for the immediate future, we are a bootstrapped company, with a single developer. Of course if the right investor came along, we might be able to ramp up development, but my top focus now is keeping a unified and streamlined vision for product development.

Validating startup ideas are all about reducing risks. We believe our v1.0 has eliminated the risk “will people use and value this product”. Our biggest question moving forward is “will our target customer pay for this product”, and following from that “do we have the right target customer”? Finally, we working with the reality that while there is boom in edtech investment, is there really a boom in edtech revenue? After all, higher ed students are not exactly flush with disposable income. Accordingly, we are evaluating multiple avenues for monetization. We truly believe that our product, and the multitude of highlights and source information that it generates, can translate to some valuable analytical information for students, educators, and publishers alike.