Like any good Massachusetts liberal, I'm a big fan of NPR. My local NPR station is often playing in my office during the day and it's always a preset away in my car. So it's no surprise that I was listening to All Things Considered, their afternoon news program, on my way home from a conference today. While I walked away with a much better understanding of the ethnic and tribal roots of some of the conflicts in the Middle East, new thoughts about paid sick leave during a pandemic, and serious questions about the resources used on the Ares rocket to be launched tomorrow, I was bothered by one particular segment on e-readers.
E-readers have become an important part of what I cover in this blog, not so much because of what they can do now, but because of what they have the potential to do for education in the future. Color e-ink is on the way and the Nook, coming next month from Barnes and Nobles, uses a color LCD touch screen and the Android operating system to display content related to the gray-scale text. We're getting close to a tipping point on content, as well as hardware, and welcome competition in this field means that e-readers will be useful for more than just your paperback collection sooner than later.
However, the NPR technology segment, called All Tech Considered, in very un-NPR fashion, echoed the misconceptions of so many consumers, as well as educators looking to the current crop of e-readers to solve a lot of very real problems (textbook size and weight, accessibility, cost, etc.). Unfortunately, we're not there yet.
As the featured commentator, Omar Gallaga, said when asked whether he owned an e-reader,
"I have not, not yet. I'm not a subway or rail commuter, but if I was I would probably get one, or if I were a student juggling lots of heavy textbooks I would probably go ahead and make the jump.
Of course, he'd probably be a college student still juggling lots of heavy books and a Kindle, since most of the heavier undergrad texts simply aren't available for the Kindle. Even the Kindle DX, with its larger screen, just can't cut it with graphics-heavy text. Check out this Amazon query for "physics textbook college" (prompted by the Amazon autocomplete feature). You won't notice many Kindle versions of the books aside from a Schaum's Easy Outline (a handy reference, to be sure, but not one of those heavy juggled textbooks).
E-readers still have utility for students. There are many books that students read over the course of their education that are just text, whether literature, non-fiction, or graduate level physics (of which there are actually several such textbooks on the Kindle store; not surprisingly, string theory books are heavy on text). However, it's pretty clear that the NPR correspondent had never tried to use an e-reader for any academic pursuits.
One Princeton student probably put it best when he described the pilot Kindle DX program at his university:
"I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool. It's clunky, slow and a real pain to operate. Much of my learning comes from...bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages - not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs. All these things have been lost, and if not lost they're too slow to keep up with my thinking...
The take-home message? We're not quite there yet.
At the end of the feature, the correspondent hit on one other major area of weakness in e-readers, especially for their potential use in schools: DRM. He described shortcomings in lending and sharing books, new applications for reading books on multiple devices, and even described the Nook's "Lend Me" feature. And then he made the ownership mistake:
You own that content, so you should be able to read it in whatever format.
But guess what? You don't own the content. The Amazon EULA is quite clear on that matter. The Sony EULA, though not quite as upfront, is equally clear. The content is licensed to you. And nobody seems to have figured out how to make this sort of licensing work in an educational setting, whether K-12, where books are shared and reused, or in post-secondary, where used books are sold, notes and all.
You know what most of our administrators and teachers listened to on their way home today? All Things Considered. And you know what they're going to be asking for tomorrow? Kindles to replace all those heavy books in kids' backbacks. Sorry, folks. We're just not there yet.