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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Can Electronic Reading Devices Replace Classroom Texts?

And now a few words about the book, that ancient medium we've all encountered, with ink on paper pages, a front and back cover, and pleasure, or knowledge, or provocation, or even a certain necessary tedium stored within.

These words are inspired by hearing from my editor at Smithsonian magazine, a thoroughly literate woman, that she recently purchased an electronic, wireless reading device called a Kindle, and loves it.

These words are also inspired by the current push by California's governor to have many textbooks converted to electronic form. My own wife has begun thinking that having a Kindle would be a great way to avoid packing her suitcase with half a ton of books on our trips to Europe, and she may be right about that.

But it occurs to me that there's some metaphoric connection between Kindle -- a word whose first meaning is "to light a fire" -- and the Ray Bradbury book (and François Truffaut film) Fahrenheit 451, which predicted a future in which all books are methodically burned.

It turns out that the book in its old-school form may be threatened not by the heat of flames but rather by the much less incendiary dance of electrons and photons.

I'm well aware that there are all sorts of worthy arguments for a tectonic shift (no pun intended) from printed paper to words on a portable screen -- economics, up-to-date currency, and, for schools, a medium that most young people are entirely comfortable with. But the increasing rate of technological change that makes the Kindle and similar wireless digital readers possible also presents a serious problem.

Think about those Super 8 home movies your father so annoyingly made and that you, eventually realizing that they were irreplaceable memories, had transferred to tape. That was back when videotape was the latest, greatest storage medium. Do you have a videotape player now? I don't. It followed the film projector into the garage sale queue when I bought a DVD player.

So all those home movies I had put onto tape now have to find a new home on disk. And it will be a temporary home, at best, because a newer next thing will replace the DVD just about a week after I have paid for yet another transfer.

So let this be said for the words-on-paper book: It may be sooo yesterday, but it's also sooo tomorrow. I have sat in a Greek monastery, reading -- or trying to read -- a codex written on vellum 18 centuries ago. But I wonder if anyone a decade from today will be able to read the words I'm writing now, words that will end up on paper only if someone bothers to warm up the printer.

My children will, however -- should they ever want to -- have a trove of my printed magazine pieces and books. These relics of the golden age of publishing may not survive for centuries, but they should still be readable by my grandchildren.

After all, every electronic medium relies for storage on plain old magnetism. And magnetism has a host of enemies, just like the elastic in old tube socks.

My hope for the antique technology of the traditional book is simple: that amid all the gee-wizardry of wireless, paperless, boundless libraries, the printed, nonelectronic object that has transported humanity's wisdom, wit, wickedness, and wistfulness from one generation to the next still will find a place in the hearts and hands of students.

It may be too nostalgic to wish that kids will read Kidnapped under the covers by flashlight, as I did. But what I do pray for to the spirit of Johannes Gutenberg is that the rustle of pages, the smell of paper, the elegance of type, and the anticipatory joy of reading "Chapter One" will not be lost to the Wii Generation.

Do you see Kindles in your classroom in the future? Please share your thoughts.

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Cheryl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Before I judge too far, I would like to actually see a Kindle in use. I have only seen pictures on the internet.

I could where using electronic textbooks would be amazing. I would love them for myself, especially when reviewing graduate course textbooks. Although, is it as easy to flip back and forth from different parts in the book? You probably can't highlight important material, either.

I see how adolescents would feel comfortable with them, since most of their lives revolve around screens with television and computers. They would be able to navigate easily. I think it could be a great tool.

I would be saddened to see picture books turning out this way. I would not want my son to grow up without reading traditional books. I can't explain why. I just feel that way. I would hope our elementary schools do not go this route. Although it would save a lot of trees, it is probably too expensive for our schools to afford anytime soon. Maybe we are safe for now.

Maria Vilte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think electronic textbooks for students is a great idea. Everyday I see my students carrying around 2-3 heavy, hard back textbooks with them in their backpacks because they do not have a locker to keep them in. I feel really bad for them; on occassion I have had to pick up/carry a backpack or two and could not believe how heavy it was. I don't think that I could carry that much weight around on a daily basis, it would greatly affect my back. I teach in California at a school where many of the students come from low-socio economic households, it is true that some of them cannot afford to pay for the maintenance of such a device, and that they may not be able to replace it should it be damaged, destroyed, or lost but; they should have access to them if they want them. Currently, at my school we have textbooks on CD/DVD, these books are checked out by parents on a voluntay basis, they fill out and sign paper work where they accept responsibility for the CD/DVD, and agree to pay and replace it if it is lost or damaged in anyway.The school has had good succcess with that CD check out process, very few if any have been lost or damaged. I think the same check out policy should be applied toward electronic books. Here in California we are facing very hard economic times like everyone else in the country;there have been tremendous cuts to education here, so I don't see us having electronic books for quite some time (if at all), but if Arnold will put up the money to make electronic books available to all students in California I'll take them!

Gail Tanner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Why do we have to choose one? I see great potential for the Kindle in the classroom. Imagine having up-to-date textbooks all the time, access to any novel your students want to read and magazines just a keystroke away. That doesn't seem like such a terrible thing. The Kindle, however, doesn't have to be the only media we read. There is still a place for shelves of beautiful picture books and exquisite texts. Just like e-mail has a purpose alongside handwritten letters and postcards, our students' world should be big enough for both.

Janet HasBrouck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a Kindle and I love books. I am a HS librarian in CA who has to also administer 84,000 textbooks for 3700 students at a high achieving high school. The Kindle or something like it would be great for textbooks and I agree that students would have no problem with an electronic reader. The district is already purchasing at least $400 worth of textbooks per student, so the cost would just shift, but the ability to keep up to date would be greatly enhanced. I can hardly wait to see what we could come up with and how teachers and students would use it.

Also, books won't disappear. They will probably never get around to digitizing every single book. The Kindle list right now seems very limited sometimes and they make no promises about when something might be made available. Until all the books are digitized, I think we will have both formats to use and enjoy, or not!

ophelia shirley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello. My name is Ophelia Shirley, a Walden student and kindergarten teacher. I am a teacher on a reservation. If you have ever worked for a school on the reservation, than you know, some of our children still do not have electricity or running water. So, a kindle is not likely something we should be worried about.

Ken Kester's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that novels should never be replaced but textbooks should. I think with an electronic science or social studies textbook it would be easier to navigate and find/mark information. They could also be updated easier and would not be as heavy.

Ken Kester's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would agree that we should never get rid of paper bound novels, but we should get rid of paper bound textbooks. Getting rid of the regular, heavy science or social studies textbook for lighter electronic one would be an improvement. Plus with electronic textbooks you could find infromation easier/faster and update them with the latest infromation.

Brian Lynch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To your point Owen, there is tremendous joy in utilizing the traditional tome, each reader with his or her own special routine. However, strictly from an educational standpoint, more specifically college students, there is a better way. Please consider the three e's:

Economics: college students alone spend nearly $1000.00 annually on traditional texts. These costs are not only barriers to entry for some, but obstacles for retention as well. College students use textbooks like business people use rental cars - the relationship is terminal.

Education: technologically speaking, every "textbook" is in digital format before it goes to print. Professors admit they only use a few chapters in many cases. The content should be available by chapter, by white paper, by speech, podcast, video clip, etc.; precision content for students to use as necessary.

Environment: most new texts require virgin tree fiber, which adds to unnecessary deforestation and is highly disruptive to habitat. They also inked via a tremendously toxic process. These books end up in landfills every spring as well - there's no need for such waste.

The Super 8's were very cool - my grandfather filmed us incessantly, then "movie night" with the portable screen and flapping projector was a week later. That however, was 30 years ago. I film my kids now and rewind the digital disk seconds later to view the event. Nostalgia is a beautiful thing, but it need not impede progress & growth, especially when it comes to educating our youth. Three e's, please.

Bonnie Nesbitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My sister bought me my first kindle in 2008 and I fell in love with it, using it for research and pleasure. I didn't know it's limitations and after 60+ books with notations and highlights, mine froze. I didn't upload my notes to the Amazon site and even though they were kind enough to give me a replacement and I could download my books again, I lost all of my notes!

I do not have the newest version so I can't speak for any new changes. I have learned my lesson! However, for students, it could have come at a terrible academic cost for them.

The first version also does not use page numbers, it has "location" markers. So, if an english class was reading a book and some had books and others, kindle, it would be hard to coordinate specific passages.

From an education+ perspective, the production costs to create a book (and the risks associated) are diminished so maybe more novice writers could get exposure!

Amy Bell's picture

I agree with my fellow bloggers who think Kindle would be a fine idea for a text but a horrible idea for a novel. We're all lovers of education here and all have no doubt had the pleasure of curling up with a good book for hours on end. One of my favorite places on earth is the Trinity College Long Room in Dublin, Ireland - it is full of ancient books arranged in a fascinating way (obviously predating Dewey) but it's the smell of leather and paper and the feel of the climate controlled room as well as the quiet reverence everyone in the place feels for the written word that gives the place its magic. I can't even imagine the cold, impersonal libraries of the future if we go to Kindle for most of our needs - it'd just be a large empty building with internet ports lining the walls for people to download the latest bestseller - I'm sure Ray Bradbury would be intrigued and I'd love to read his thoughts on the subject (rather than download them, of course!)

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