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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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Cynthia Overton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an interesting perspective on the Kindle. As someone who watched my father purchase a Betamax VCR, only to see it overtaken by the VHS a year or two later, I can certainly see your point about shifts in technology. The reason that I'm so interested in the Kindle in the classroom is because of the potential that it has for students with visual impairments. Amazon has recently disabled the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle (I've read due to concern that it's cutting into the audio-book market). However, this option would allow students with visual impairments with access to books (although limited in some capacity) on the same platform as their sited peers. This is pretty exciting when you think about the social impact for students who are blind - after all, most kids want to fit in with their peers. This also has great potential for students with learning disabilities that could benefit from audio. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the folks at Amazon will reconsider this decision and reactivate the text-to-speech feature.

But to respond to the title of your post - no. I think that there will always be room for traditional books in the classroom. They may be used differently, but they will always be there. To respond to your closing question - absolutely!

Beth Py-Lieberman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's true. I love my Kindle. It packs easy. I always have it, so I can be catching up on my novel if I have to wait in line. But it does have its limitations. I can't share the book. The best part about reading is telling someone else to read it, so the two of you can discuss. Book clubs thrive on this form of social engagement. "I'm reading this book, you have to read it." But then ever so miserly, there's no dog-eared copy to pass on. "Go download your own," is a total wet blanket on the concept of sharing. Sometimes after finishing up my book on the Kindle, I consider for a moment, buying the paper version, breaking its binding and roughing up its pages, so I can share it with somebody else. Cheers O!

Amy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My reaction to your question "Do you see Kindles in your classroom in the future?" is a pretty positive one. My first thought was, it's kind of like the Smartboard. No one was too sure about it at first, but they've come to realize what an enhancement and motivator it is in their classrooms.
I can see the Kindle being a motivator. Like the Smartboard, I can see students becoming more involved with their learning. I am a substitute teacher in Ohio and when I walk into different classrooms, I see a huge difference in participation rates if they have a Smartboard. It's exciting, it's new, it's electronic. That's the Kindle.
Kids these days grow up in electronic rich environments. They have access to computers at school, the library, their own homes (not all of course) or at a friends. They grow up with cell phones, why not grow up with Kindles too?
I can see participation rates in Reading increase because of the Kindle. I can see learning environments expanding because they are changing with the times. If every child in your class had one, it would be more interactive for them as they follow along with a book that they may not have had access to before.
I can see it as a great motivator. Students will want to do more with it, I think, because it's electronic and not just paper or a book. It helps us to learn more about the children we teach and be able to provide more and various activities to give them the tools for a great education.
I love what Cynthia said about helping out children with disabilities or eye sight problems. I agree with her, they would always be welcome, but nothing will ever be able to replace the love (and that new book smell) of a real book that you can hold in your hands and make your own. Sometimes, you need that feel of a real book to take you to a place where your imagination will run wild.

Melissa Ann Eastwood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was riveted by your article on the Kindle reading device. I felt a sense of urgency to be proactive in keeping books in the classroom upon the ending of my initial reading. Reading is not only something that we use for academic and learning purposes, but is something that can be a hobby or an art form. It would be devastating to loose such a wonderful thing. However, in today's fast paced world, it is important for educators to keep up with the ever changing demands of the students that we teach. I started teaching first grade in 2003. I found that keeping my students attention was a much easier task during that first year than it appears to be at present time. Could it be that I was more enthusiastic about my lesson delivery? Maybe. Could it be that when my students went home, the game consoles were a form of escape for shorter amounts of time, rather than an electronic form of a babysitter? Possibly. Despite the reasons for the difference in the lack of attention span between my first year of teaching and now, it is evident that our students today are more immersed in technology than even just a year ago. I have a four year old daughter who knows technology terms that I have just recently become familiar with and comfortable using. We walked into the local Starbucks the other afternoon and my daughter paused at the door and said "Hey Mom! Look, they have Wi-Fi here. You should have brought your laptop. Then maybe I could have gotten on Barbie dot com or Princess dot com". I was blown away at her comment, however, it showed me how much our children embrace technology and how they are using it for learning and recreational causes. Do I think that a time limit should be put on technology use? Absolutely. Without proper limitations, our children can get lost in the uses of technology and in turn, may loose interest in or ability to use the traditional ways of learning and playing. In today's technology driven society, I find it absolutely amazing at the number of first grade students that I come into contact with that say they play their video games when they get home instead of going outside. And if fascinates me further to realize how many of them do not go outside to make "mud pies" and play "house" with the neighborhood kids, not to mention the number of children that say they don't know any other kids on their street. I think that it is important to embrace today's and tomorrow's technological advances, yet still keep yesterday's traditional ways at the forefront. I think that the use of the Kindle device would be extremely beneficial for those with special needs and for motivating (as Amy stated) our lower achieving students. However, I think that it should be used in moderation so that the traditional ways of enjoying and loosing one's self in a book is not lost.

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