Amazon ate my homework, or why DRM stinks for education

The phrase "Amazon ate my homework" may certainly have been uttered on more than one occasion since the New York Times reported on Amazon's deletion of specific editions of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 from Kindle e-book readers (and no, the irony wasn't lost on anybody). Unless you live under a rock, you know that this has been a bit of a discussion topic in the blogosphere.

The phrase "Amazon ate my homework" may certainly have been uttered on more than one occasion since the New York Times reported on Amazon's deletion of specific editions of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 from Kindle e-book readers (and no, the irony wasn't lost on anybody). Unless you live under a rock, you know that this has been a bit of a discussion topic in the blogosphere. However, the first time I'd heard it put that way was in an email exchange on which I was lurking today, when Daniel Dern, an independent technology writer, made specific reference to the notes/annotations lost by a particular student.

While that particular phrase gave me a chuckle, it also reminded me just how utterly incompatible DRM is with most educational pursuits, especially as it relates to traditionally printed materials. As bloggers and technology pundits discussed the legal ramifications of Amazon's actions, I watched boxes and boxes of paper books being delivered to our schools. Textbooks, references, novels, short stories and countless other bits of dead-tree educational paraphernalia were being wheeled on dollies to various book closets in preparation for fall.

"Hooray!" you exclaim...The schools are finally replacing outdated and broken-spined books! What a great investment in our children! Luddites like my wife say that it's about time; there's just no substitute for that new book smell, right? And even geeks like me can't deny one thing: there are no DRM hassles with dead trees. Sure, we can't buy one book and then photocopy classroom sets, but I can move books from one student to another, from one class to the next, and reuse them year after year without the concept of copyright ever entering my brain.

Those dead-tree copies of Animal Farm and 1984 in the English book closet at our high school (the key to which I am lucky enough to have only because our network rack and servers also live in that oddly air-conditioned room) can't be taken back or deactivated. They don't expire. They just work until the pages fall out or students lose them in their lockers.

This isn't to say that dead-tree books are the way to go in education. What it says is that no good models currently exist for using electronic versions of copyrighted material in schools. Digital rights management, as it stands today, is a major barrier to adoption of electronic texts and books in schools. This is especially unfortunate given how mature the technologies are that would allow students to annotate, share, and interact with the materials from which they learn. We frown upon students taking notes in their textbooks at the K-12 level. What if the notes kids took could become part of a digital portfolio, or were searchable, or could live apart from the text itself as they can on the Kindle?

Yet how do you move books from Kindle to Kindle as students change classes? Or how do you reasonably protect copyright holders when textbook-like media are easily shared on a network?

I don't have all of the answers here, although I think that web-based subscription models could ultimately solve a lot of problems, both in K-12 and in post-secondary education. What I do know, however, is that until the issue of DRM in education is addressed, students may have a valid excuse when they say that Amazon ate their homework. Even if the excuse isn't valid, educators will have a very difficult time getting digital content to students without an overhaul of DRM that makes sense in 2009 instead of 1984.

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