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Can Electronic Reading Devices Replace Classroom Texts?

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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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Catherine Cota's picture

I am forever committed to books, but I love my Kindle. After using it, I realized it does have a place in the classroom. I am now trying to get funding for all of my middle schoolers in a small charter school in Compton, California to have their own Kindle. We do not have a library. The students do not have access to books of their own. It is a thrill to realize that we can download all of the core novels we want our students to read and THEY WILL ACTUALLY READ THEM. Not to mention that the audio function helps those students who have difficulty reading. How cool is that?? Kids from Compton will be able to READ, READ, READ.

Catherine Cota's picture

My students in Compton California don't have books. Our small charter school does not have a library to offer them. Hence, the Kindle. What a great way to level the playing field. I am leading the charge to get every middle schooler their own Kindle loaded with our core novel curriculum. It would be a boon if we could get their textbooks on them also. No more excuses about I left my book at home or it got stolen. It is so hard to manage books in the classroom. The coolest thing---they are going to READ, READ, READ

Sophia's picture
Teacher,Orlando Florida

It is hard for me to replace traditional books for the kindle or the recent ipad. I am a school teacher and I think it would be disappointing for me if the concept of paper books gets extinct. I got an e-book as a gift last year and I love the convenience of it. But if I think of relaxing and reading a book, I would always want to grab my paper book instead of the ebook. Even in the classroom I think the children should not be deprived of reading paper books for entertainment or educational purposes. I totally agree that usage of paper can be reduced by using the ebooks, but we have to also understand that too much use of technology, electricity and battery also has negative effects on the environment. i think a balance should be struck between the two.

jack mark's picture

[quote]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 scripts 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.[/quote]

Yes I also agree with your comment

teacherintheroom's picture

No. I do not see Kindles in the classroom. Technology is not reliable. In the event of a battery or power outage, learning would have to stop. If students did not know how to "use" a book, then what would happen.

However, I do believe that, as with all types of technology, that it has a place beside the more "traditional" tools of learning. For some students, particularly those that do extensive research, the Kindle would be ideal as they could have many text available at their fingertips to read. But, an online library can do the same thing.

I think the Kindle is an interesting tool that may work for some people. I personally do not see it coming into the classroom exclusively to replace books but maybe as a supplement.

Matthew Kitchens's picture
Matthew Kitchens
Seventh-grade reading/ELA teacher from Ennis, Texas

Progress is part of life, Owen. Caves became obsolete the first time man realized he could pile sticks to create a domicile. Sticks went the way of the dodo when man discovered the sun-baked brick. Such is the way of media - be it print or digital. Did ancient man lament that he had to transfer his cave paintings to brick - brick to papyrus - papyrus to parchment scrolls - scrolls to bound books - etc?

My lovely wife presented me a Kindle for Christmas. I've had the device about a week, and I can testify I'm hooked. I'm currently researching ways teachers have integrated Kindles and other e-readers into curricula. The postings here have given me food for thought. On my school podcasts, follow my opinions of the Kindle:

Please feel free to post questions, comments, or polite wisecracks on the podcast blog. In the coming weeks, I'll podcast some of the ideas I've collected for integrating Kindles into curricula.

Matthew Kitchens's picture
Matthew Kitchens
Seventh-grade reading/ELA teacher from Ennis, Texas

If you look hard enough, you can find reasons against having anything in the classroom. I once taught in a classroom that had no windows. Therefore, when a massive Texas thunderstorm knocked out power, everything in the classroom came to a screeching halt because my students and I couldn't see. The flashlight in my desk didn't provide enough light for education to continue. Problems will arise, and, like always, teachers will improvise, adapt, and overcome. That's what we do.

Incidentally, the battery life on my Kindle is pretty good. With the Kindle's Wi Fi inactive, the device barely uses any power. I can read 8 plus hours in a day, and I notice the battery indicator barely diminish. I think the benefits Kindle provides - access to social networks for book discussions, an electronic dictionary to define unknown words, and text-to-speech capabilities - far exceed the hiccups one might encounter with its integration.

Kathy Traylor's picture
Kathy Traylor
Teacher, seventh grade math

I'd love to see my 90 pound, 5 foot tall seventh graders carrying a Kindle, or an iPad-type tablet, instead of four or five textbooks of 800+ pages each. They galumph through the halls with their camel-hump backpacks (only those with a doctor's note are allowed to use rolling bookbags - too much hall congestion). Most of their texts have online versions, but if the 7th grader is not the oldest child, getting on the computer at home may be a challenge. And not all of them have internet access at home - sometimes the only email source is on mom's cell phone. As a math teacher who gives homework every night, I'd love to see each student with her OWN access to the textbook, the video lessons, the interactive quizzes, the online graphing calculator and all the other tools that our county is paying for with the 'textbook' adoption. An e-reader might not be able to do all this, but a tablet computer certainly would.

My language arts and social studies teacher colleagues would appreciate each student having a 'copy' of the novels they assign, rather than having to keep track of the one class set that the school has available, and must be kept in the classroom, not sent home for at-home reading time.

Matthew Kitchens's picture
Matthew Kitchens
Seventh-grade reading/ELA teacher from Ennis, Texas

Since Amazon and AT&T just teamed up to drop the price of Kindle 3Gs by $50, I blogged about why schools have no more excuses. E-readers will pay for themselves in the long run. Check out my July 14 post:

William's picture

I defiently think that we will have eletronic devices like the kindle in the classroom. it is possible that wewill have it during the 2011-2012 school year. im super excited

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