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An Evaluation of Sony’s Digital Paper as an Academic Reading and Note-taking Device

Writer(s): 
Miklos Juhasz, Waseda University

Although computers and tablets have become widespread in teaching and learning, e-book readers have received little attention, partly because most devices have been too small to be useful. This report evaluates Sony’s Digital Paper (DPT-S1), a 13.3-inch, advanced PDF reader and annotator, which was experimentally used in a one-semester, university academic listening and note-taking course. This article will briefly introduce the device, explain how it was used in the course, discuss its benefits and drawbacks pertaining to the particular course, and close with general observations on the usability of Sony’s Digital Paper as a teaching or learning tool. 

Technical Aspects of Digital Paper

Unlike LCD screens, electrophoretic ink (‘e-ink’) devices such as Amazon’s Kindle display pigments electro-chemically. The main benefits of such screens are greater sharpness, high contrast, and no emission of eye-damaging and battery-draining light. Large e-readers are less common than their 6 to 7 inch counterparts. A few companies produce 9.7 inch models, but DPT-S1 is currently the primary commercially available 13.3-inch e-ink device. Lighter and thinner than any tablet, with a nearly A4-sized screen, it handles like a clipboard in terms of shape, size, and weight. It can display PDF documents stored in its 4 GB internal memory or a micro SD card. Text can be annotated or highlighted using the included pen, which can also be used to create handwritten notes and contains an eraser function. The pen has excellent accuracy, and a natural paper-like feel on the matte screen, which is unlike the smoother glossy screens of LCD devices. There is practically no lag between writing on the screen and the characters appearing on it. Palm rejection allows users to rest their hands on the screen while writing on it without inadvertently activating other functions. The device has built-in Wi-Fi, and an excellent battery life. E-ink devices use bistable displays, which means that battery drain is only caused by page turns or making changes within a page (Ink Technology, n.d.). As a result, the DPT-S1’s battery can last for many days, with Sony claiming “up to 3 weeks’ use on a single charge” (Digital Paper Systems, n.d., n.p.). Those who wish to be further acquainted with the DPT-S1’s technical features, can find an in-depth video review of the device by Kozlowski (2014).

Teaching situation

Two academic listening and note-taking courses at Waseda University were experimentally taught for one semester using DPT-S1 devices provided by Sony for each student and instructor. Students used the devices both in place of the regular textbook and as a note-taking workbook. The paper textbook was digitized and uploaded chapter by chapter onto the e-reader. The note-taking worksheets were also added to each digitized unit. The notes students took during class were uploaded to a server at the end of the class, where the course instructors were able to access, download, grade, and digitally return them using their own devices. 

Device Use in Class

The e-readers were kept in a locked cabinet located in the classroom, and they were distributed and collected by the instructor. Each student had their own individual account for the system. During class, students read from the digitized textbook, studied lesson-specific vocabulary, completed note-taking skill-based activities, wrote their answers on the pages, and shared and discussed what they wrote while looking at each other’s devices. After textbook activities were completed, students listened to a lecture multiple times, and took handwritten notes. Before each new listening, they reformatted and improved their notes. This involved frequent erasing and rewriting previous versions of notes, which was made possible by the pen with the eraser function. After the last listening, students compared their notes, and answered textbook questions based on the information they wrote. At the end of the class, they submitted their notes via WiFi to be saved in a cloud-based folder, logged off, and returned their devices. These notes were later accessed by the course instructors and graded on their own devices. Both instructors and students were also able to access all the course materials over the Internet via personal computers for review outside of class time. 

Benefits

At 358 grams, DPT-S1 is so light to hold that it feels like a device half its size. It is much lighter than the A4-sized regular textbook for this course, or any tablet device with a comparably sized LCD screen. At a resolution of 1600 x 1200, text and illustrations were crisp, and displayed flawlessly. It also took up less desk space than the regular textbook, as it did not need to be spread open, so students in groups, were easily able to share their answers to textbook questions by placing their devices side by side. I found that students spent slightly more time maintaining eye-contact during such discussions than in the regular course as a result of the easier handling of the device compared to the paper book. The highlight of the device is undoubtedly the pen. It feels natural in the hand in terms of size, shape, and weight. The writing experience is very smooth on the matte screen, and the eraser works well. The eraser function is activated via a button near the tip of the pen. Unlike many other stylus models, users do not need to change their grip or flip the pen upside down. Compared to paper that is often gauged and messy after multiple rewrites, no trace is left behind when erasing words digitally, and the final version looks more legible, which was another of the benefits of using the device instead of regular paper. Students did not have to buy or carry the textbook, and instructors were able to store all the collected notes in one device rather than carrying a stack of papers, and also did not need to carry their textbooks to class. As an added benefit for the teachers, there were no forgotten textbooks or note-taking workbooks, both of which happen in the regular course.

Drawbacks

Several of the shortcomings of the device are caused by the limitations of e-ink itself. Most e- ink devices can only display colors in greyscale, which can cause confusion when trying to distinguish between students’ original notes and teachers’ comments alongside them when viewed in the device, although it is possible to view the annotated pdf file in real color on another device. The greyish background of e-ink devices is disliked by some users who prefer the contrast offered by LCD screens. Also, there is some lag on page-turns compared to LCD screens, and continuous page scrolling is not possible so any activity requiring flipping through pages or scrolling in a rapid manner cannot be conducted. When documents are stored on the device, the lag upon opening them is minimal, but when they are cloud-based, they can take a few seconds to open when the file is accessed for the first time. While WiFi is built in, using e-ink devices to browse the Internet is very slow and inconvenient as each page needs time to render, and video files cannot be played at all. 

Another course-specific problem resulted when students needed to perform tasks requiring two separate documents because the documents are stored in separate locations on the device, and it was problematic to view them simultaneously. While a multi-document view is available with two or four documents per screen, this renders the page half or quarter of the original size making it harder to read. Also, when trying to erase individual handwritten letters, grouped characters are also deleted, so sometimes more text is erased than intended. Cost is another drawback, as these devices are more expensive than most tablets. Currently Sony US is listing them at $799, while the price is undisclosed on the webpage of Sony Japan, and one can only purchase it in Japan after a consultation with Sony. 

Distributing and then recollecting the devices each class took several minutes in every lesson. With a larger class, this could become a significant loss of class time. There were technical problems on a few occasions: devices occasionally froze when students tried to submit their notes, and a workaround had to be found. Because the DPT-S1 handles only PDF files, those who wish to view other files need to first convert them to PDF. Another unfortunate limitation is that the DPT-S1 cannot be used with an external keyboard.

Conclusion

In sum, the greatest positive impact of the device on this course was the ease of writing notes, specifically erasing and reformulating them using the digital pen, and the increased interactions among students resulting from the ease of handling this lightweight device. A feather light and thin e-ink device with excellent handwriting integration has many potential uses for teachers, especially those struggling with eye strain. I am currently using the Digital Paper to mark essays in an academic writing course, and I find the experience on par with the similarly sized tablet computer I have been using for the same purpose. I also store and edit my previously paper-based materials, such as attendance sheets, class readings, and notebooks in my DPT-S1, allowing me to be completely paper-free, and reducing the risk of misplacing papers containing sensitive information. The lightness and thinness of DPT-S1 makes it easy to read it anywhere without having to worry about battery drain. Despite its large size, one-hand use is possible. At this point in e-ink technology, e-ink devices cannot replace tablet computers for most users, but Sony’s Digital Paper is an excellent option to supplement one. 

References 

Digital Paper System. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.sony.com/electronics/digital-paper-notepads/dpts1

Ink technology: Electrophoretic ink, explained. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.eink.com/technology.html

Kozlowski, M. (2014, August 7). Sony Digital Paper review [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/sony-digital-paper-review

TLT Wired Editor’s Note: With the new year arriving and Old Man Winter keeping us inside this year, we all have some time to explore new technologies for use in our language classrooms, be it the Digital Paper discussed above or the ubiquitous smartphones our students all carry. For help in integrating the latter and other mobile technologies, check out a recent publication by Steve McCarty, Implementing Mobile Language Learning Technologies in Japan (details at http://book.waoe.org). Don’t forget to share your CALL-related ideas with others at JALTCALL and PanSIG 2017 this summer (Calls for proposals open now!). Thank you for your continued readership and wonderful feedback on the column. I wish you all the best in the coming new year and hope that 2017 finds you expanding your interests, activating your students’ learning, and staying Wired!

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