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Can Electronic Reading Devices Replace Classroom Texts?

| Owen Edwards

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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Comments (75)

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charlie (not verified)

Fascinating Post

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I hadn't though much about this issue until I read all of your great post. Lots of food for thought here. Thanks.

owen e (not verified)

e books

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Dear Shawn,

I often get an education by the responses to my posts, and your response about your experience with the Sony reader is certainly one of those times.

Many thanks for helping me think more about this subject,

Owen E.

Esther Fowler (not verified)

As an educator and a parent,

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As an educator and a parent, my first experience with electronic textbooks was the beginning of this school year. My daughter's school adopted the electronic science book(CD). We are responsible for this CD the same way we are responsible for the textbooks. I like the fact that my daughter has one less heavy book to carry and she enjoys using the electronic version.

Janet Rea (not verified)

real life experience

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I am the librarian at a small Christian private school which emphasizes the liberal arts. We opened 9th grade last year and 10th this year. All of our students have Sony readers which they will be able to keep at the end of their 4yrs though our rent-to-own program. We have had great sucess with our readers. We use primarily classic public domain works which we download through Gutenberg and Chr. Etherial Library, etc. Last year our students read Illiad and Odyssey, early church fathers such as St.Augustine, Aristotle, Herodutus, Plato, Ptolemy and so on. This summer they read either Pride or Prejudice or Count of Monte Cristo on their readers. We only use textbooks for foreign language and math. The amazing thing for me is that they actually read! I have worked for several years as a HS librarian, and I sincerely doubted that the readers would work, but the kids love them. I think its a combination of their facination with technology and the fact that they felt challenged. Our program uses a lot of discussion and essay test questions, so we are able to see that they do indeed read the material. The students also will ask to have books other than curriculum downloaded to their readers to read just for fun. (This is all old stuff, since we have not yet purchased any e-books of our own!) It has really been exciting to be on the cutting edge of this technology. As for textbooks, I'm not sure if kids will read them in any way shape or form: its one of the reasons we're trying not to use them so much.

owen e (not verified)

kindle conundrum

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Dear Todd,

Thanks for responding to my recent post on electronic texts. You and I are on the same (paper) page. But as someone who has had a long career in print, both as an author and an editor, I sometimes worry that my defense of traditional ink and paper books is essentially nostalgic, like someone early in the last century worrying about the rise of the automobile because he misses hearing the sound of hoofbeats on the street outside. I hope that younger people can still respond to "actual" books in the way that I do.

all best,
Owen

Shawn (not verified)

Love of books

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Personally, I am unsure what the argument is.

I was an early adopter of e-book technology, buying an RCA e-book reader about 8 years ago (and using until I wore it out). All through this time, I have also been an avid reader of paper books (who doesn't love the smell of book paper?).

Having taught science for a number of years, I look forward to the time when students can have electronic versions (they would need to be color though) of their textbooks if only so they will actually take them home and have a chance to read them! If in addition those books could be more up-to-date, what could be more desirable?

One of the wonderful thing about recent e-book readers, and here I speak more of the Sony than of the Kindle, is that reading them is much the same experience as reading a paper book. There is none of the harshness that comes from looking at a computer screen. There is an ability to place bookmarks, and to highlight important passages. Better than paper books though, there is also the ability to touch a word and have the dictionary instantly look up the meaning of the word, even allowing you to edit the dictionary to add words that aren't already there. Not to mention the obvious fact that you can carry dozens books around with you and never worry about extra weight.

I believe that what the decision will ultimately come down to is economics. If electronic books can save the districts money and not interfere with publishers profits, we will see them become more commonplace. If either of of these don't come to pass, then individuals will continue to purchase the newest technologies and schools will become more out of touch technology-wise with the rest of the world.

LInda (not verified)

electronic books

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In response to Bob - boys who don't like to read may be sadly disappointed to find that the Kindle version of a biography - or any other book - still contains words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Reading is still reading, as many of my middle schoolers learn when they have to actually take notes from a website. Also, might there be copyright issues to consider before inserting questions or directions into an author's text? Finally, the ablilty to spread out several books or printed articles on a table or to manually flip between articles or chapters and see two pages at once is lost in electronic formats. Comparison and serious research, even by children, sometimes need print versions. I think pleasure reading, for some, might be desirable. Some texts might work out well. However, the printed page still remains a viable format.

Sridhar Iyer (not verified)

The digital divide will come

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The digital divide will come into "books" arena too - those schools that can afford to implement some variation of digial books and those who can not. We still see this divide in the "computer & technology" domain. So my sense is that early adopters will experiment with Kindle and other digital texts. Mass adoption will take some time.

In this context, I would like to point out my aspirations to replace "paper" in some areas - in elementary schools, every child has to go through the ritual of reading logs and vocabular cards. Over 15 million sheets of paper and 25 million index cards are "consumed" every WEEK! Educators please try your favorite electronic version of reading logs and vocabulary cards - it helps reduce paper wastage in the class-room.

www.readinglogs.com is one such site. Let us cut down on paper wastage in small steps, eventually digital books will take over!

Paloma (not verified)

I have to agree with Iris

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I have to agree with Iris here. I could not give up books in print and nor would I want it to be a thing of the past for my students. Ironically as it sounds, I am enrolled in an on-line program but I still insist on printing out aticles I must read. I also appreciate that although it is an on-line program there are still actual books for me to read. Like Iris, I want to be able to mark up my reading with underlining, definitions of new words, and questions that arise. My eyes can only take so much heat and light from the screen in one sitting.
I don't see Kindles in the classrooms too soon either, as money is tight and budgets are being slashed. I have not had the opportunity of seeing a Kindle or even experience its true function. Am I interested? Yes, but I'll keep my collection of books around for awhile adn continue to enjoy the hours spent in the library and bookstore.
Paloma
Kainalu Elementary
Gr. 3
Kailua

Janet Van Nort (not verified)

Kindle

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I agree with your reply. I have never seen a Kindle before but I am very interesed in finding out more information on them. I really agree that these devices may have a real place with special needs children. I have a son with a visual impairment. I have a hard time getting his teacher to understand that he is not trying to get out of the reading assignment. He just can not read a book without an auidobook to listen to. He received A's and B's on his report cards. I know that his teachers do not see him as having a visual impairment. However, difficulites come in many ways to different people. He was tested by an eye doctor after almost failing his state standards test two years ago. He was diagnosed as having a tracing problem. He spends so much time trying to figure out what the book says that he has not idea what he read. The audio books have been a great tool. Each year it starts all over with the new teachers. I teacher in my sons district and still have a hard time getting them to understand that his is a smart kid. He just need a little extra help. I would love to find out more about the Kindle. We do not have a lot of resources for students with the tracing issues. If they are benefically I would love to recommend the district purchase a few to help those students. Thanks for your thought!!

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