Will the Kindle Change Education?
E-book reader advances are pushing printed textbooks closer to extinction.
When indiana social studies teacher Chris Edwards directs his students to work on research projects in class, they turn to resources such as books, atlases, computers—and Kindles.
Amazon.com’s e-book reader is a device more commonly spotted in airport lounges or on commuter trains than in high school classrooms. Edwards is one of a few teachers that have begun to capitalize on the slim, digital tablets to access and display electronic books. And he thinks the Kindle may eventually become a fixture in student backpacks. “I see it as an update, not simply of the book, but of the library,” says Edwards, who has a set of five Kindles in his classroom at Fishers High School, in Fishers, Indiana.
Indeed, many educators have been discussing the potential of handheld technology to leverage learning, while watching for signs that the manufacturers of e-book readers may cut prices. Are e-readers like the Kindle a good way to go? There’s a lot of interest, along with a lot of questions.
At a minimum, the interest in the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and similar devices is helping change educators’ views of the necessity of printed textbooks.
“The textbook is no longer the Holy Grail,” says Preston L. Coppels, director of instructional services for Loudoun County Public Schools in Ashburn, Virginia. He attended the National Educational Computing Conference in June, in part, to assess developments in e-book readers and other devices like netbooks and smartphones.
A Handheld Library
e-readers like the kindle—larger than an average paperback but smaller than a laptop—can be stocked with digital texts, which are downloaded from computers or special websites. Users can transport them, and in effect an entire digital library, to an armchair, the subway, a sunny beach, or a classroom.
The Kindle, the best known of the current crop of e-readers, weighs just 10.2 ounces. Text displayed on the gadget’s six-inch screen is remarkably legible, by virtue of so-called electronic ink, a display technology that is reflective like paper. With no backlighting, it uses less power than other devices, too, extending the time between battery charges.
Some educators say they are already convinced that e-book readers are what schools need. “For the longest time, distribution of reading materials has been highly inefficient in getting the right material to the right student at the right moment,” says Daniel Witz, a language arts teacher at Lake Bluff Middle School, near Chicago. “You have maybe four books of a fiction title; if a fifth kid wants to be part of that circle, you don’t have that copy,” he says.
Students provided with Kindles, which can hold some 1,500 digital books, can simply download the copies they need, without burdening a school’s media center, Witz says.
With access to the vast bookshelf of titles, teachers could tempt reluctant readers with high-interest magazines and nonfiction, or they could feed their voracious readers with popular series.
Kindles stocked with well-chosen e-books would also allow teachers to flex new teaching strategies, according to Cornelia Brunner, the deputy director at the Center for Children and Technology in New York City. “You could have a very nicely selected group of readings. . . . Kids could read, annotate, and actually clip and be asked to make connections among those clippings,” says Brunner.
Other possible benefits include providing students with more books electronically than is practical in print, reducing photocopying, relieving the unhealthy weight of student backpacks, and—though this case is far from proven—saving school districts money on textbooks.
These potential benefits have helped lift the Kindle into national policy discussions. A concept paper published in July by former members of the Obama-Biden transition team, titled A Kindle in Every Backpack: A Proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools, suggests holding a national trial that would equip 400,000 students with e-textbook readers to gauge the idea’s effectiveness.
Kindle’s text-to-speech audio function can help address the challenges of students with vision problems, language barriers, and lack of reading fluency, educators say.
“Research is saying audio books promote [reading] fluency,” says Chastity Pick, a computer lab teacher in Fairbury, Illinois, who says the Kindle’s audio function could be invaluable for special-needs students, “kids who need to hear as much as see.”
The librarian at Pick’s school is experimenting with a Kindle. “Audio books are not new, but Kindle sort of takes it to a new level,” Pick says. However, inexpensive MP3 players, which can download free resources from sites such as
Audible.com, might be a cheaper alternative for audio, she notes.
Amazon.com has not yet courted the school market aggressively, but that may change. “We believe that one day students could read all their schoolbooks on Kindle and that in doing so, will have an even better experience,” says Cinthia Portugal, an Amazon spokeswoman.
This fall, it is launching a series of pilot projects to try out an enhanced version of the Kindle at six U.S. colleges and universities—Arizona State, Case Western Reserve, Pace, Princeton, Reed College, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
The Kindle DX, which has a larger, 9.7-inch screen, can show detailed graphics in 16 shades of gray and is designed for e-textbooks. It can display documents in Adobe’s portable document format, though again only in black and white or grayscale.
Participating in the pilot are several major textbook publishers, including Cengage Learning, Pearson, and Wiley.
The complete readings for three courses will be delivered via Kindles supplied to students and instructors, says Serge Goldstein, associate chief information officer and director of academic services at Princeton University. “We do a massive amount of printing, but this is as much driven by the digitization of the textbooks as by the availability of the Kindle,” says Goldstein. The readings will also be available on the university’s online course management system.
The university tryouts may shed light on other issues that worry K–12 educators, such as how durable the plastic tablets are in students’ hands and backpacks. Amazon says the Kindle can survive repeated drops from 30 inches, but high school teacher Edwards said one of his five Kindles broke shortly after he received them when it slipped from a student’s hands.
Teachers aren’t so sure about the Kindle, either, says Susan Jinks, the technology coordinator at George Mason High School, in Falls Church, Virginia. Teachers at her school like the device but have been disappointed that it has no output jack to connect to an overhead projector—a key feature for displaying text to the class. For now, instead, she is putting together an order for netbooks for the school.
Another issue is the ability to transfer content from one user to another. Amazon.com’s system limits to six the number of Kindles that can access content from one user’s online repository. But Amazon also allows publishers to choose whether to protect their content with “digital rights management” technology, limiting downloads to just one device.
There are other issues that have yet to be worked out. Reviewers have criticized the Kindle’s proprietary format for digital content, which prevents users from converting their own materials to that format by themselves. Some education-technology experts say e-readers, lacking video and interactivity, provide too static an experience. Others say that current e-readers like the Kindle don’t offer enough personalization of learning and differentiated instruction.
The Bottom Line
Cost is the most immediate hurdle, with the standard Kindle retailing at $299 and the Kindle DX at $489. Books for the Kindle generally cost from a few dollars to about $10. Newspapers and magazines have subscription costs, as well.
“You’d be hard-pressed to convince a teacher who gets $125 per year for classroom resources to spend it on a Kindle,” says Pick.
The Kindle’s popularity already seems to have stoked competition from other technology companies, such as bookseller Barnes & Noble, which has teamed up with Plastic Logic to develop a new reader, and Apple, which is rumored to have a digital tablet under wraps.
In the end, publishers and educators may decide that e-readers like the Kindle are not dramatically different enough, especially in comparison to netbooks and handheld devices like the iPhone.
Those alternatives have the appeal of being multifunction digital jackknives compared to the e-book readers, which deliver text and not much more. The bells and whistles of a netbook, however, may distract from the task at hand.
Edwards, the social studies teacher, says the simpler, more book-like device may prove the better learning tool in the end. “A lot of students who are very bright find it hard to read and contemplate the material, which is the real work,” he says.
While the Kindles added “a tone of excitement” to his class last fall, Edwards says by the middle of the school year, he realized they had another virtue: “They didn’t become the focal point; they were just like any other resource.”