Curriculum Opinion

Reimagining the Textbook

By Michael L. Miles & Bruce S. Cooper — November 09, 2009 6 min read
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The word “kindle” usually refers to fire, using “kindling,” or small pieces of wood, to build a flame. But in today’s high-tech marketplace, an electronic reading device called Kindle, marketed by the online bookseller Amazon.com, has started another kind of fire, igniting competitive forces in a movement to deliver books and other written materials in fast, inexpensive ways that fit more easily into the computer age.

Though Kindle is the best-known of these electronic readers, Sony and other companies have developed their own devices, and the bookseller Barnes & Noble plans to offer its version, the Nook, on Nov. 30. All may soon be vying for the favor of one extremely active book-buyer: America’s public schools.

The devices are small, portable, and relatively inexpensive. They are softly readable, with little of the glare often associated with computer screens. And material can be downloaded in seconds from a potential listing of millions of books, for little cost per tome. Some offer instant access to tools such as dictionaries, so viewers are able to look up words as they read. And the devices will continue to improve.

Traditional paper and hardcover books may go the way of the abacus, chalkboards, and ink pens—replaced by a small, plastic gadget that offers immediate access to unlimited potential learning resources.

The stage is set for a radical change in education: going electronic to replace the dozens of textbooks students use in school. The availability of these portable readers, as well as the use by some schools of easily assembled and updated digitally based hard-copy readings for students, gives us a glimpse of the classroom of the future.

The potential benefits of using the Kindle or similar devices in teaching and learning are substantial. But these should be weighed alongside the risks and limitations of the technology before we envision a universal “e-book” for every class, program, and activity of the nation’s 56 million schoolchildren.

Here are some of the advantages school leaders, teachers, and parents, should consider:

Ease of carrying. Suppose children who entered school at age 5 or 6 received a free personal Kindle-style device for use during the next 12 or 13 years of schooling. Heavy collections of textbooks and workbooks might then be a rarity. Anyone who has tried to carry a child’s book bag, loaded with algebra, physics, social studies, English, or French texts, along with notebooks, tablets, other paraphernalia, and perhaps a novel or two, can understand why bad backs and spinal injuries are on the rise. An electronic device like Kindle can “carry” all those books, and more—and weighs a mere 10 ounces.

Costs, access, and uses. Consider how many different texts and reading books the average child uses in 12 to 13 years of pre-K through 12th grade education. These costly tomes get dirty, go out of date, and are often lost, while the Kindle is relatively cheap ($260) and can download and update texts in mere seconds. It also can be adjusted for children with limited vision, making letters bigger and clearer.

Instructional options. Teachers would no longer be limited to a single textbook in their classes, and reading assignments could be expanded to include different points of view, improving exposure to ideas and enhancing the critical analysis of a subject. Books with varying reading levels on the same theme could be shared for “differentiated instruction,” and with the availability of larger type fonts, teachers could offer readings to children unable to read a regular book. Using these devices, students could access any one of thousands of potential literary and technical resources: It would be like having a pocket library, open 24 hours a day.

Eco-friendliness and durability. Durability for the Kindle appears to be greater than for the average school textbook. So instead of regularly replacing each subject-specific text (approximately eight books per term) with a new edition, a district would need only to buy and replace this single electronic device. Perhaps reciprocal arrangements could be made with distributors. For example, Amazon could provide a complimentary Kindle to each student, in return for instant outlets for millions of books and workbooks publishers would sell access to online. Everyone would benefit. Plus its use would have the added advantage of lowering carbon emissions and reducing the demand for paper.

Before school leaders are tempted to put one of these devices into the hands of every student in their districts, they should spend some time contemplating a few important issues:

Monopoly or competition? Amazon.com has become a leader in Internet shopping, and as the parent company of Kindle, it maintains contracts with the publishers and distributors that provide books to be accessed on the device. Although Kindle maintains an enormous catalog of digital books, magazines, and newspapers available through Amazon, the potential for undue influence over curriculum and instruction still exists, if there are few or no choices of electronic textbooks to buy and those devices’ book lists are limited.

School leaders also should worry that after they make a significant capital and technical investment in a particular device the business or technology cycle might shift to another contender, and their schools would be stuck with useless blank screens or a less advanced reading device. Today, Kindle’s competitors include eBookwise, Sony Portable Reader, and iRex iLiad, with the Kindle and the Sony Portable Reader emerging as the market leaders. But it is wise to remember that many high-tech brands that once rallied the stock market quickly faded in the fast-paced, competitive world of technology.

Costs and benefits. Many districts might prefer to wait to see what happens in the market for portable reading devices, letting others take the risks of early adoption. The “newness” factor has always been an obstacle to innovation in public education, and could be the case with electronic readers.

Technological concerns. Battery life also is a potential trouble spot for educational institutions, as the Kindle, for example, reportedly provides only four days’ worth of reading on a single battery charge. Many educators might thus fear new excuses for neglected or forgotten homework assignments: “My battery ran dead,” or, “I lost my charging cable.” Further complicating the situation, the 2nd edition Kindles are hard-wired and do not have replaceable batteries, which might make schools dependent on the manufacturer for a simple battery replacement.

Classrooms also might need more electrical outlets to encourage students to charge their devices during the day. And wireless-access enhancers might require retrofitting, as many school buildings have little or no access to wireless providers.

To some educators, the greatest worry may be that, while richer school districts could afford the initial investment (hundreds of Kindles or other devices, new wiring, maintenance, and batteries), poorer districts, whose students are most in need of the latest technology, might be the last to get these electronic readers.

Still, devices like the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Portable Reader, and others have the potential to change the landscape of public education, to light a fire, so to speak, under the textbook, curriculum, and learning industries. Traditional paper and hardcover books may go the way of the abacus, chalkboards, and ink pens—replaced by a small, plastic gadget that offers immediate access to unlimited potential learning resources. Portability, accessibility, and enhanced reading clarity, plus adaptability for updating features, make these technologies an enticing new avenue for schools.

Portable electronic readers deserve serious consideration by boards of education and school leaders. Teachers need to become familiar with them, too, to keep on high-tech pace with their students—a real, continuing, but worthwhile challenge.

In the 18th century, Voltaire put the 21st-century stakes in perspective. “The instruction we find in books is like fire,” he said. “We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Reimagining the Textbook


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