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Using the Kindle for research and studying

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Nov 2014, 15:03

I have to confess, that when it comes to some technologies, I am a bit of a laggard.  It was only very recently that decided to get to grips with understanding the mysterious world of eReaders.  I have two excuses: the first is that there’s just so much ‘tech’ to keep on top of, which means that it’s difficult to know what to do next (which is actually a pretty lame excuse), and secondly, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the screen quality of eReaders.

About a month ago, I requested a new book from the University library to do some preparatory reading for a new course I’m involved with.  The library turned around my request pretty quickly, but they also sent me an email that suggested that I’ve got some figuring out to do.  It was: ‘we only supply that text book in eBook format’.  No dead tree variety?  No, apparently they don’t do that anymore.

Back at home, I searched around for a box that contained a discarded Christmas present that one of my relatives had received and had then given to me after a couple of months; it was an Amazon Kindle.  After figuring out how to give it some power, the first thing I did was connect it up to my Amazon account.  I was gradually finding my way into being a ‘contemporary reader’.

This blog might be useful for anyone who has to use these eReader devices for their studies.  It might also be useful for any of my colleagues who have to battle with the mixture of convenience and frustration that accompanies the use of eReaders. 

I say ‘eReaders’, what I actually mean is ‘Kindle’, for now.  And when I say ‘Kindle’, is actually the really old ones with keyboards and black and white screen, and not any those new-fangled colour models.

The first section is all about figuring out how to read a text book.  The second section is all about how to download Open University on-line materials to your device (so you can read it on the go).  Some of the OU courses are presented entirely on line.  Two examples of this are: TT284 Web technologies, and H810 Accessible on-line learning: supporting disabled students. I describe how you might (potentially) go about downloading an on-line course to your device, so you can get ahead with your studies.

The third part is a bit of useful fun.  I asked myself the question, ‘I wonder what books I can get hold of for free?’  The answer is, ‘actually, quite a few’.  In the final section I share a few tips about how to download books that are out of copyright.  I, for one, haven’t been a great reader of the classics (I’ve been too busy messing around with computers; another lame excuse), but there are loads that are clearly available.

Working with text books

Apparently, the OU has a website called Mobile Connections, which offers some guidance about the use of mobile devices (OU website) and pointers to mobile strategy documents.  This is all very well, but how do I get a text book onto my device.

After clicking around the university library and attempting to access the text book that I wanted to ‘take out’, I was presented with the following message: "Patrons using iPads, iPhones or Android devices can download and read EBL content via the free Bluefire reader app. "  Now, I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone, and I’ve explicitly made a decision not to read any textbooks on my Android phone simply because my eyes are not up to it.  I haven’t heard about the Bluefire app, but the Bluefire website may or not be useful.

Another part of the library message was that "Downloaded EBL ebooks can also be transferred to any portable ebook reader that supports Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). There's a list of these compatible devices on the ADE website"

I had never heard of Adobe Digital Editions before but I’ve managed to find an Adobe website that offers a bit of information.  I had a good look on the ‘compatible devices’ list and my Kindle device wasn’t listed, which was pretty frustrating (to put it mildly).

All this frustration highlighted a division between two different formats: one called ePub and another called mobi.  Apparently ePub is an open standard, whereas mobi is owned by Amazon.  I soon saw that you couldn’t put ePubs on my Kindle, which was a bit rubbish.

 I asked myself two inevitable questions: ‘is it possible to convert an ePub to a mobi, and if you can, how do you do it?’  Thankfully, the internet is a wonderful thing, and I soon found a product called Calibre (website).  Calibre is described as a ‘free and open source e-book library management application developed by users of e-books for users of e-books’.  It’s a tool that you can download onto your PC, put an ePub in one side, and get a Kindle mobi book out of the other (with a bit of clicking and messing around in between).

 One thing that Calibre can’t do is take account of DRM.  DRM, or digital rights management, is used to protect media from being copied between different devices (which is why you need software like the Amazon Digital Editions).  If your ePub is protected by DRM (or, someone has said that you can’t copy it), then you can’t convert from one format to another.

For sake of argument, let’s say you’ve got a freely available text book that is useful with your module.  How do you go about transferring it to your Kindle?  In my naivety, I thought I could use the ‘old school’ technique of plugging it into the USB port of my computer and dragging files around.  Unfortunately, due to local OU system policies, staff cannot to write data to external USB devices due to an information security management policy.   As soon as I connected up my Kindle, I was presented with a message that read, ‘do you want to encrypt your device?’  If you’re ever asked that question in response to any e-reader you have, say ‘no’ straight away.  Thankfully, I did have the foresight to say no, as otherwise my Kindle would have probably been rendered useless.

Since I was unable to transfer my mobi files directly from my PC to my Kindle, how should I do it?  The answer came from a colleague: you email the books or any files that you want to read through your device to your Kindle account.  When you’ve done this, and you turn on your Kindle, magic happens, your document is downloaded.  If you’re interested, Amazon have some helpful pages (Amazon website).

Working with OU resources

More and more OU resources are being made available in Kindle and ePub formats.  This, I believe, can only be described as a ‘very good thing’ since some of the OU books can be pretty bulky.  When you’re working with an eReader, you can sometimes put all your module materials on your device.  When I go to tutorials, I tend to bring all the OU books with me – but rather than carrying them, I have them all preloaded on a Kindle.  This said, I am a great fan of paper; you can do things on paper that you can’t do with electronic devices and visa-versa, i.e. you can search for a term in an eBook, and you can scribble in your books with different coloured pens (and stick things between pages).

Not long after starting to mess around with my Kindle I realised I could do exactly the same with the other module materials I need to work with from time to time. I quickly realised that there would be a problem: things would start to get pretty confusing if I had all the different eBooks in one place on my Kindle.  Thankfully, there is a concept of a category.

After emailing a load of different mobi books to my Kindle, I noticed that my ‘TT284 category’ (I thought it was a good idea to group resources based on module code) became quickly overloaded, and I noticed that the default display order was the order in which the books were downloaded in.  Although this was useful, I got myself into a bit of a muddle with the download sequence.  I soon realised that it’s possible to change the ordering according to the title which made for a really nice sequence of module materials.

I’ve now got categories for all of the different modules I have downloaded resources for: H810, TT284 and M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  For M364, I have a mobi version of the assignment booklet, and PDF copies of the four blocks.  I don’t, however, have a copy of the set text. 

The M364 set text is huge, and it’s a real pain to carry around, and students have regularly asked whether there are electronic versions that they could download.  Unfortunately, publishers are only just beginning to catch up with the new ways in which institutions and students consume their materials.  For now, we’ve got to battle on with a mixture of paper text books and OU materials which can be provided in a digital format.

Free books!

After months of it being in a box on my shelf, I’ve finally figured out how to use my Kindle.  Now that it’s jam packed with learning resources and I’m getting used to its screen (which isn’t too bad), I started to think about how I might use it to read stuff ‘for fun’, i.e. using it to read novels and non-fiction.

I quickly remembered Project Gutenberg which was a project dedicated to digitising books that were out of copyright.  I took another quick look at this and discovered that they now had books in eBook format, which was great news.  A quick look around took me to an interesting page called the Best Books Ever Listings (Project Gutenberg) I also discovered all these different ‘bookshelves’ organised by topic.  I really recommend that you have a good look around.

Another really good source of free (or really cheap) books is Amazon.  Within minutes of looking around I found a number of classics that I had never read before.  I clicked on a ‘buy’ button, and these new books were delivered to my device.  (Plus, since an eBook doesn’t have a cover, you can download some particularly racy books and read them when you’re on the train and no one would be any the wiser…!)

And finally…

As I said earlier, it sometimes takes me a while to get on top of a technology; I used to be someone who always wanted to mess around with the latest technologies and gadgets.

I don’t really know why it’s taken me so long to get to grips with eReaders.  I’m someone who likes the feel and smell, and flexibility of physical books.  This said, I’ve come to see that eReaders can give learners a flexibility that they never had before; an ability to carry everything around easily, and the ability to search for terms and phrases.  When a lot of material has moved ‘on-line’, eReaders can help us to access content in a convenient way without being always tied to a computer.  I think this is a really good thing.

I’m someone who loves to make notes.  One thing that you can’t do (very easily) is make scribbly notes on eBook pages, but that is okay: I’ll just have to figure out some new study strategies.

The more that you look at something, the more you think about different possibilities.  Looking at the Kindle has caused me to ask myself a further question, which is: how might you create an eBook from scratch?

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