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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.

Comments (74)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jillian Goff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some textbooks are available online. This is good for those that have internet access but for those that don't, its not beneficial. I love the Kindle... don't get me wrong; however, there is something about reading an actual book that makes me smile. I love books. I love reading. I love electronics and technology. I feel the option of e-books should be there but it should be just that, an option. I see the other side though. We must keep students interested and intrigued. To some, books may be old-fashioned with all of the technology children have today. I guess, in the end, it doesn't really matter how you read the information, its just that you do.

Jillian Goff
Walden University, Graduate Student
Second Grade teacher

Rosemary 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have mixed feelings about Kindle being used in the classroom. As a teacher who loves technology my first thoughts are positive. I can see where many of my students would find it a natural extension to their technology driven world.

As a graduate student working on my Masters in Education at Walden University it would be wonderful to have the textbooks on a Kindle. I often find myself struggling to focus my bifocals and maneuver my arms to a distance that I can read the small print that is used in many textbooks. Being able to increase the size of the font and/or contrast would be a definite benefit.

However as an avid reader who loves books, I am not sure that I would find the Kindle as satisfying as a paper book. There is something about waiting for a favorite author to publish the next book in their series. You wait for the publication date, race to the bookstore, and dive into the first chapter before leaving the store/parking lot. I wonder if I would still find the same satisfaction as I turn the pages on an electronic device.

Time will tell whether the paper book will follow the position that many of our nation's newspapers find themselves in currently as they move to digital versions only or shut down. I hope there will always be books! I cannot imagine the vibrant colors of classic picture books like Eric Carle's translating to digital versions. I believe there is a market for both versions and sincerely hope that paper books will always survive and thrive.

Paloma's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read more about the Kindle, I too feel that it is a tool that would interest and intrigue some of my students. However, I also know that some of my students, like you and I, would still prefer holding a book, examining pictures up close, and marking the text if necessary. I'm interested in actually using a Kindle to get the full experience, but know that I would not willingly use it to replace my books, references and articles that I use for pleasure reading and research. It is my hope that technology can be a supplement to my curriculum presentation, and that my students will be able to use different technological tools to enhance their learning experiences, if they so choose. Maintaining a balance between the traditional modes of learning and new technological advancements will be necessary in this ever-changing world.
Kainalu Elementary
Grade 3
Walden Univ.

jamie 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a special eduacation teacher and I can see advantages to using a kindle. Any things that gets my students to read I am very ok with. I also can see advantages to using the kindle over nextbooks becuase I run from class to class I can deal with my students who say their backpacks are too heavy, However I would say that I do not want to see hard cover books gone thier is something very great about beeing able to read paperbacks book.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Technology can be such a great thing to have in the classroom. There are so many different things to do to increase lesson plans and excitement in students. You can take your class on trips across the ocean or visit the zoo in another state. Electronic books would be a great achievement in advancing technological use in the every day classroom. However, I do not know how I feel about my students using them. Yes, it would save space in the classroom but isn't having physical books on bookshelves an exciting area to look at? To have your students see see lines upon lines of books will help them in their reading. They see the words on the binding or covers and they know what adventure to look forward to. I believe having electronic books takes away the sight-based learning and it takes away the colorful stimulation of the classroom. What happens when a student looses or breaks their e-book? They will have nothing to read. If there are physical books on bookshelves in the classroom, any student at any time can look at it and read through it. I do think e-books would be great if the entire class is reading a book together but the school still has to pay per copy so does it really save any money? I think e-books are a great thing, but I would rather have my students see the words and pictures on paper than on an electronic device.

Kyle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Personally, I would never want novels to be replaced in schools. I read five novels a year with my students, which excites them because they don't have to use a reading program like Open Court.

What I think would make things interesting for both the teacher and the students is to, perhaps, utilize an electronic reading device for one or two novels each school year. That way, the teacher is "changing things up" and adding excitement to his/her novel studies.

With technology being such a large part of schools nowadays, it'd be a great way to incorporate a technological tool into Reading.

As I said, though, I would never do away with novels completely. There's just something about holding it, flipping the pages, highlighting, etc. that an electronic device wouldn't offer.

Kelly Loftin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach 4th grade special education students. I have mixed feelings about electronic books. The students that I teach (for the most part) can do the grade level work, expect for the pronunciation of the text. This is where an e-book would be beneficial. I also have students who are auditory learners. These students would also benefit from e-books. However, on the other hand a teacher is there to give instruction to the student. There are students that do not receive special services that could benefit also. Due to economic problems, it may also benefit schools to have electronic text books in order to "share" them.

There is also something special about reading a book - not a textbook, but a book. This offers a special treat. I have mixed feelings about the electronic books.

Jillian Goff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Response to Paloma,
I like your use of the word "supplement". I think it should definitely be an optional supplemental resource. I also feel that there should always be a balance. Lots of times people think "out with the old, in with the new." I would hate to see that happen to the traditions of literature as far as hard copies go.

Joann Mills's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is just something about the smell and feel of children's books, chapter books, and picture books. To collect and own your own series of books, to be able to dog-ear pages if you so choose, to highlight information you deem necessary...these things you cannot do if you do not physically hold the text in hand. Paper copies versus electronic copies - this is a tough decision.

I really feel children and young adults benefit from holding books, of having literacy enriched environments at their fingertips which require them to physically turn pages, use bookmarks, and carry the selection with them. Books such as these can be shared at bedtime with the younger readers, however, an electronic version...not quite as snuggly, wouldn't you agree?

Having electronic capabilities for literary works is great - I wonder if it can't be left to upper level students in high school and post secondary students? Perhaps begin introducing students (by choice) to electronic media as middle school students to acclimate them to the world of technology.

In addition to being available to older students, I feel that electronic media as a supplementary source for special needs students would be quite beneficial.

I find it hard to give my full attention to reading scholarly articles from various journals online, but want to print them out to have the literary work 'in my possession.' Perhaps I am old school? I don't know.

Something tells me that you just won't get the same effect in a scratch and sniff book when reading it online. As mentioned earlier, this is a tough call. I think it best to perform trial and error to see if this concept gains in popularity.

Maria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I initially had reservations on electronic texts (math) but have gradually changed my mind. This year, my school has pushed giving students access to electronic versions of texts when available from the publisher. I have found my advanced classes use the electronic version regularly but the on-level classes or lower students do not care for it. The parents that are very involoved with their child's academic progress seem to be very pleased and it has come in handy when students have been out sick, and had not taken the large text home prior to the absence. I think providing both options is a way to differentiate and meet the individual needs. I still require them to bring and use the text in class, but accept their desire for the electronic version at home. Even though it is a risk we take, moving away from more traditional, established methods, I think we need to keep in mind just how much technology is a normal part of today's student and allow movement in that direction.

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