Classroom Technology Opinion

Should Your School Replace Textbooks With E-Readers?

By Tom Vander Ark — August 18, 2012 6 min read
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Guest post by Sarah Cargill, Getting Smart

This February, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged the nation to transition to digital textbooks in the next five years. Only a month
prior, Apple announced the ever so
controversial iBooks 2 for iPad, which partnered the biggest leaders in publishing, put textbook writing in the hands of many, and drove down the cost of
classroom reading (with the exception of the cost of the iPad). As the shift to digital picks up momentum, administrators and educators have rushed to
adopt 1:1 programs with iPads, Chromebooks, and netbooks. Yet, what about e-readers?

E-readers took center stage with the release of the first Kindle in November 2007. By the end of 2011, Amazon reported that e-book sales surpassed paperback
sales for the first time. The consumer shift to digital reading was apparent. Yet, what about the education market?

This month, I got my hands on two popular e-readers: Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Simple Touch, priced at $99, and Sony’s Ultra-Light Reader WiFi Touch, priced at $129.99. Both devices
are incredibly small and lightweight, lightening the load of textbooks. They’re also durable with flexible plastic that is safe tossed into a bag or
backpack. Being an iPad user myself, I reached out to my network of e-reader fanatics and educators for some additional thoughts.

You may have seen the comedic commercials from Kindle that took a stab at the Apple iPad’s shiny
LED screen. The Ultra-Light Reader displays a matte, black and white screen, making it easier on the eyes and more book-like. There’s also real value in
the Nook’s E Ink screen and “Glowlight,” which make it easy to read in sunlight, at night, and especially in the classroom. At a basic functionality of
tech in the classroom, sunlight should never be an inhibitor to learning.

“I love my Nook Simple Touch because the pages remind me of a classic paperback. Although I am extremely innovative, there is something about a backlight
while I am reading a book that I do not like,” said Ali Freezman, an SEO consultant at SEER Interactive, in conversation. “For things like reading
magazines and the news I prefer to have the LED screen so I can see photos and videos in color. But when it is a book, it needs to look like a book.”

Yet, reading books, magazines, and PDFs is all it does. Many administrators and educators are looking to e-readers like the Nook as low-cost and digital
replacements for textbooks to put a lock down on distractions found on other e-readers or tablets.

“We often compare technology distractions to some ideal that doesn’t really exist,” said educator Adam Renfro. “It’s not like kids have 100 percent focus now, but that’s what we compare it
too. I think most kids have ‘winked out’ after 20 minutes in our artificial world of school that resembles something more like a museum display than the
real world.”

Renfro recalls that his daughter was permitted to bring an e-reader to school, but not an iPad or tablet, for strictly digital reading purposes. Yet like
many Generation Z students, she didn’t stay enchanted long. “After getting used to the iPad, she told a friend that a Nook was how their ancestors read
books,” said Renfro. “So I upgraded her to a Kindle Fire, which is basically a tablet.”

Innovative educators like Renfro have different ideas in mind for digital textbooks and tablets, which transform the “distractions” schools fear:
engagement, collaboration, content creation, and more. Their solution is a device that emulates more of a tablet or netbook, rather than simply a reading

The Ultra-Light Reader comes close to the functionality of the tablet with:

  • Wi-Fi access to more than two million books and periodicals

  • Built-in dictionaries and translations

  • Hand-written and memo-pad note-taking capabilities

  • Ability to play music and view pictures; and

  • Document storage.

“I believe an e-reader that allows for customization of font size, audio options, dictionary support, Internet research, note taking, and organization of
notes can help students read and comprehend content at new levels that were not accessible to them previously,” said educator Alison Anderson. “They also give instant access to books that previously had to be
ordered, delivered, etc. There is a movement towards digital, up-to-date textbooks, so students can always read relevant information instead of outdated,
recycled texts.”

“In the newer e-readers, you can share your annotations with your teacher,” added Renfro. “I’m a big annotator, and I like how it changes reading into an
‘active’ exercise. Traditional classroom books you can’t markup and annotate, but it’s not a problem with e-readers.”

“E-readers also lighten student’s backpacks, but that should NOT be the only motivation or benefit for integrating e-readers into the classroom! I think that
should really just be a bonus,” added Anderson.

Still, the device falls short of the ability to allow students to practice writing and collaboration - valuable 21st century skills. E-readers are primarily
a single-function device, much like a clicker. It brings us back to a few vital questions about the technologies necessary in the classroom for the success
of Common Core State Standards implementation and 21st century skill development:

  • How many devices do students need to consume (read and research) and create (write) learning? Tom Vander Ark talks about the 3-screen day, which includes primarily content
    creation devices. Renfro adds, “I wouldn’t want to carry around two watches, one with the time and the other with an alarm.”

  • What kinds of content (books and novels vs. blogs and OER) do students need to consume for success in the future? Educator Susan Lucille Davis talks
    about how we need to teach writing for a socially mediated world.

“I want kids writing across the curriculum,” said Tom Vander Ark. “I want their primary device to be a production device. My first preference is laptops
and second preference would be tablets. Schools should not buy print textbooks; but there are much better and cheaper alternatives than e-readers.”

The reality is that e-reader savings may not be significant enough to be a feasible excuse for textbook replacement. While iPads start at $399, the Kindle
Fire is about $60 more than the Ultra-Light Reader at $199. Educator Susan Lucille Davis
said she’d consider a Kindle Fire over an iPad to cut costs while still leveraging content creation power on the device.

Android also makes Internet-ready devices in the $200 price range. And over in India, the government released the world’s cheapest tablet, the $35 Aakash
Android, last October. The prices of the Nook and Ultra-Light Reader have been blown out of the water and mere textbook replacement falls short of vision.

“Nevertheless, you have to make do with the budget that you have, so I’m sure some districts will be purchasing stripped down e-readers,” said Renfro.
“That’s better than nothing. With the widening digital divide in our country, many students will never have seen an e-reader. So it will be a start for

Innovative leaders are looking beyond the Department of Education’s digital textbook call to content creation devices that foster 21st century skills for
students’ futures.

Disclosure: Getting Smart received these e-readers from Staples, the office supply professionals. Visit staples.com to see their full selection e-readers.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.