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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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Rebecca Kinnee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do see what you are saying, but I think the novelty of the kindle will quickly fade. Students are not going to like reading more because it is on a computer screen. If they wanted to, they could find pretty much any text online, but they don't. The way to turn a student into a reader is to expose the student to a book that he/she can fall in love with.

I don't think a kindle is a bad thing, but I don't think it is going to revolutionize education. If we teach the same old stories in the same old ways, we will get the same old responses. We as teachers need to learn how to reach this generation in other ways than through technology. Technology can help, but in my opinion, it isn't the golden ticket here.

(On a final note, I love that you talk about book smells! I actually sometimes pass around an old book to my students and make them smell it! They usually hate it, but some day when they are old and they open up a book they read in high school to that sweet, musty aroma, they will be transported back to my classroom Sophomore year and will understand why that smell is so amazing!)

Todd I. Stark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are a lot of advantages to electronic books, and maybe they will replace paper inevitably, but this is also associated with some loss I suspect.

Holding a book in your hand, annotating it with ink, marking the pages, putting little tabs to mark important sections; these are not just quaint rituals, they are also ways that readers interact more deeply with the book and vicariously the mind of its author. I feel as if the deepest levels of reading are probably significantly more difficult with electronic media, at least any media I can personally imagine, and my experience has been that deep reading as I think of it is almost impossible with a Kindle. There are many properties of that medium that continually distract and provide an unreliable flow in the reading experience. This is a minor point when reading a brief article or a catalog, but when absorbed in a novel or an advanced textbook, it is a huge difference. The Kindle is better than a web page by far, but still has plenty of idiosyncrasies.

Of course the technology will improve, and maybe new rituals of interaction and new capacity for resolution will eventually replace the present awkward version. But I fear the skills may be all but lost by then as the paper books begin to dwindle, and we may lose the unique source of intelligence provided by deep cognitive processing and unique interaction we still enjoy with paper books.

Rees Midgley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I support the value of the Kindle (my wife loves hers for the expressed reasons).

I disagree that digitized text will somehow become unable to be read. The examples given are of technology that has been replaced by cloud computing - storage of digitized content on multiple servers that are backed up and shared constantly among whatever new devices appear, all made possible through standardization of the exchange medium. This means that the digitized record is safer now than the original paper-based or other form of recording could ever be. Importantly, this movement also means that the enormous numbers of students who will never be able to read from the original Velum can still read and learn. After all, this is what education should be about. We need to provide opportunities for everyone to learn and reach his or her potential.

Betty's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

FYI - DigitalOwl, Florida-based software company, is one of the first to venture into the fledgling digital textbook market. The company is sponsoring a Florida Digital Textbook Initiative, replacing traditional textbooks at several Florida schools with e-textbooks on laptops and ebook reading devices.

Matt Gomez, marketing manager at DigitalOwl, believes that schools are ready and eager to introduce electronic textbooks to the classroom. Since announcing the initiative, DigitalOwl has received inquiries from around the U.S., and around the world, from schools who want to learn more about the opportunity.

Jim Teas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What I notice is missing from this discussion so far is that California is planning to replace *textbooks* with electronic versions. I love to read and will never abandon paper books, but I can see electronic textbooks. Think of the money and time saved when a new edition comes out! You might even get "updates" in between editions (as we do with software) - that's right, Pluto is no longer a planet and here's why (my district's science textbooks were adopted the year Pluto was demoted).

By all means keep other traditional texts in the classroom, but don't bemoan the loss of paper textbooks.

Iris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was at the airport recently and saw a man pull out a Kindle. I've never seen one or heard of it before. I was fascinated for a second once I realized what it was. Then I thought, I hate reading on the computer. I prefer to print any reading material off the computer screen. I find it relieves the strain on my eyes and gives me a chance to mark up the piece if need be. Also, when I leisurely read, I like to relax and not feel the rays from the computer screen on my face. I think many will resist the tech evolution and if we reflect, books have withstood the time, unlike the cassette tape.

I do think the Kindle can have a place at school but in a limited fashion. First of all, anything digital is pricey. Some schools do not have sufficient computers for their students and digital textbooks will be years on their supply list. Second, the price will make damage liability an issue and an expense the school or parents might fight. It is hard enough to have students and parents take responsibility for the textbooks without a fight .

It would be nice to experiment on a class. Have one half use the Kindle and the other half use the book. After the second week have the students switch and report their preference.

Deborah Murciano's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After dealing with problems in my classroom where my students are unable to close their desks completely because of the amounts of textbooks inside, I see Kindle as a light as the end of the tunnel. Today's children are absolutely fascinated by technology and implementing it in my classroom peaks their interests in a way no human being, or textbook for that matter, ever can. After introducing them to the famous Smart Board this year, my students are enamored with learning via Smart Board games, completing worksheets using the magetic Smart Board markers, and manipulating the screen with the touch of a finger. Although I consider myself to be old fashioned, I try to stay one step ahead of my students when it comes to the latest and the greatest in technology, which is not an esy task. Even my 4 year old manuveurs my i-phone better than I ever can. That alone is enough to convince me that ANY innovative device sold in stores is going to wow my students. And if it can keep them interested in learning, even better!

Deborah Murciano's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Amy. I teach 2nd grade in Florida and this is my first year using a Smartboard. The way my students light up when I put on a Smartboard activity lets me know that technology is the future. These kids are growing up with gadgets for everything. Why not implement them in our schools? My 4 year old is fascinated with my i-phone. He manuvuers through each screen with such ease and I can't even delete my pictures! It's amazing how drawn kids are to technology. I say bring it on! :)

Chao Lor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the idea if Kindles in the classroom. My husband is currently reading his books online for his college courses and he likes that the fact that he does not have to carry the heavy books around. I know that it would definitely get the students attention in wanting to learn and or at least pay attention a little longer. But I still like my books too.

I noticed that many of my students who are computer tech savvy are having problems in handwriting. For the last three years, students handwriting are getting worse and worse. I am wondering if it will be a problem in the future if the kids will not know how to write. Of course, they can type it on an electronic device, but what will happen when you need to write out something? What happens when your electronic device fails? Just wondering.

Bob Menz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary physical education teacher in the Rochester (N.Y.) City School District who serves on the SBPT I see a fantastic benefit to educators who will use the Kindle and future versions of this technology. Imagine, the teacher-practioneer, building administrator and central office personnel being able to track, download, and adjust real-time learning on a per person basis! Boys who don't like to read could read biographies on the MJ's and Lebron's they aspire to become (& what boy doesn't dream of being a sports star?), enrichment students could delve into the Great Books. Probing questions designed for comprehension by either the CRT or C.O. could be inserted into the text perhaps as "a ticket out the door" and onto the next page, chapter, or book allowing leveled books to be given to each child at their various reading levels. If anyone who reads this, gets excited and has MONEY I'm sure our principal Ms. Jackson would accept 703 Kindles and their downloads for our school to be a test site for this technology. I am like a thirsty man in the Sahara when it comes to talk of the Kindle!
Healthfully Yours,
Bob Menz
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School # 9
485 Clinton Ave. N.
Rochester, N.Y. 14605

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