Friday, November 13, 2009

Reimagining The Textbook: The Risks And Rewards Of Electronic Reading Devices

Education Week / Vol. 29 / Issue 11 / Pages 24-25 / Published Online: November 9, 2009 ; Published in Print: November 11, 2009

By Michael L. Miles & Bruce S. Cooper

The word “kindle” usually refers to fire, using “kindling,” or small pieces of wood, to build a flame. But in today’s high-tech marketplace, an electronic reading device called Kindle, marketed by the online bookseller, has started another kind of fire, igniting competitive forces in a movement to deliver books and other written materials in fast, inexpensive ways that fit more easily into the computer age.

Though Kindle is the best-known of these electronic readers, Sony and other companies have developed their own devices, and the bookseller Barnes & Noble plans to offer its version, the Nook, on Nov. 30. All may soon be vying for the favor of one extremely active book-buyer: America’s public schools.

The devices are small, portable, and relatively inexpensive. They are softly readable, with little of the glare often associated with computer screens. And material can be downloaded in seconds from a potential listing of millions of books, for little cost per tome. [snip]. And the devices will continue to improve.

Traditional paper and hardcover books may go the way of the abacus, chalkboards, and ink pens—replaced by a small, plastic gadget that offers immediate access to unlimited potential learning resources.The stage is set for a radical change in education: going electronic to replace the dozens of textbooks students use in school. The availability of these portable readers, as well as the use by some schools of easily assembled and updated digitally based hard-copy readings for students, gives us a glimpse of the classroom of the future.

The potential benefits of using the Kindle or similar devices in teaching and learning are substantial. But these should be weighed alongside the risks and limitations of the technology before we envision a universal “e-book” for every class, program, and activity of the nation’s 56 million schoolchildren.

Here are some of the advantages school leaders, teachers, and parents, should consider:

• Ease of carrying. [snip] An electronic device like Kindle can “carry” all those books, and more—and weighs a mere 10 ounces.

• Costs, access, and uses. Consider how many different texts and reading books the average child uses in 12 to 13 years ... . These costly tomes get dirty, go out of date, and are often lost, while the Kindle is relatively cheap ($260) and can download and update texts in mere seconds. [snip]

• Instructional options. Teachers would no longer be limited to a single textbook in their classes, and reading assignments could be expanded to include different points of view, improving exposure to ideas and enhancing the critical analysis of a subject. [snip]. Using these devices, ...  would be like having a pocket library, open 24 hours a day.

• Eco-friendliness and durability. Durability for the Kindle appears to be greater than for the average school textbook. So instead of regularly replacing each subject-specific text (approximately eight books per term) with a new edition, a district would need only to buy and replace this single electronic device. [snip] Everyone would benefit. Plus its use would have the added advantage of lowering carbon emissions and reducing the demand for paper.

Before school leaders are tempted to put one of these devices into the hands of every student in their districts, they should spend some time contemplating a few important issues:

• Monopoly or competition? [snip]. Although Kindle maintains an enormous catalog of digital books, magazines, and newspapers available through Amazon, the potential for undue influence over curriculum and instruction still exists, if there are few or no choices of electronic textbooks to buy and those devices’ book lists are limited.

School leaders also should worry that after they make a significant capital and technical investment in a particular device the business or technology cycle might shift to another contender, and their schools would be stuck with useless blank screens or a less advanced reading device. [snip]

• Costs and benefits. Many districts might prefer to wait to see what happens in the market for portable reading devices, letting others take the risks of early adoption. [snip]

• Technological concerns. Battery life also is a potential trouble spot for educational institutions, as the Kindle, for example, reportedly provides only four days’ worth of reading on a single battery charge. [snip]

Classrooms also might need more electrical outlets to encourage students to charge their devices during the day. [snip]

To some educators, the greatest worry may be that, while richer school districts could afford the initial investment ... , poorer districts, whose students are most in need of the latest technology, might be the last to get these electronic readers.

Still, devices like the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Portable Reader, and others have the potential to change the landscape of public education, to light a fire, so to speak, under the textbook, curriculum, and learning industries. [snip]. Portability, accessibility, and enhanced reading clarity, plus adaptability for updating features, make these technologies an enticing new avenue for schools.


Michael L. Miles is a school social worker, the past president of the Patchogue-Medford, N.Y., board of education, and a doctoral candidate at Fordham University, in New York City. Bruce S. Cooper is a professor of education policy and leadership at Fordham University and the past president of the Politics of Education Association.


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  1. I didn't see a discussion of the downside of the Kindle--surely there must be one. In a public library setting, what happens if it breaks but the patron says it was that way when he got it home? And there must be other practical issues.

  2. The big downside of the Kindle? To put anything into it, you have to use Kindle's servers (ie Amazon), and everytime you use their servers to put anything into your own Kindle (even if it's your own writing), they charge you. Also, Kindle has the ability to pull material off your Kindle without asking for your permission - and they have done this.

    The business model for eReaders should be: make the device nearly free, and make $$ by selling you content, either through single purchases or subscriptions. The content should be not limited by proprietary formats or technologies, thereby restricting you to only being able to buy from one particular vendor.

    -George Bradford, University of Central Florida


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