Fellow blogger, Jason Perlow, has written a couple of interesting pieces lately on ways to get cheap ebook readers/tablets into both students' and consumers' hands. In, "Kindroid: Two great tastes that would taste great together" he described how an Android-based Kindle ebook reader could allow this platform to really take off.
In "Can we finally realize Alan Kay’s Dynabook for $100?," Jason describes how a Kindroid-type device is pretty close to the tablet envisioned 40 years ago at Xerox PARC by Alan Kay for educational uses. The answer to his own question, as he points out, is no:
I believe we have all the technologies necessary to create the Dynabook, but to get a tablet-type ebook/computing device into the hands of every single student in the entire world — be it in developing countries or in our own educational institutions, we’re going to have to try a lot harder in terms of cooperation between competing companies with their own technological agendas and put a lot of petty differences aside and provide government incentives to these companies to bring the cost of manufacturing and development down in order to finally realize Kay’s dream.
Very true. Cost, I'm finding, is the number one barrier (aside from a culture that feels the need to print 30 copies of everything) to going paperless. A $100 tablet/ebook reader (think Kindle with touch, annotation, and a reasonable software stack) would go an incredibly long ways towards making paperless schools attainable.
Of course, as Jason points out, we also need to get textbook manufacturers on the bandwagon and sort out what DRM really means to educational institutions as more of our educational resources become electronic. I'm inclined to believe, though, that as devices like the Kindroid he envisions become more commonplace and more schools start moving towards paperless models (both for educational and conservation purposes), the e-materials will follow.
One thing I think we need to remember, however, is that we don't need to get one of these devices into the hands of every student. One reason that Classmate PC seems to be succeeding (literally millions of orders from local OEMs at this point) where OLPC is struggling significantly, is that Classmate PC gets deployed in established classroom settings. We don't need a Kindroid in every pot; we need basic sanitation, clean water, immunizations, and reasonable nutrition for every child.
Will this immediately bridge the Digital Divide? Absolutely not. However, it's time we started moving towards both goals: get the Dynabook (or the Kindroid, or whatever) built and get content widely and cheaply available and start addressing the basic needs of children worldwide. As infrastructure comes together in developing areas (or in inner cities of developed areas, for that matter), fleets of Kindroids with plenty of available content could easily be placed in newly-built schools to immediately give teachers sets of cheap, modern texts and access to all of the resources of the web (paperlessly). That's how we will bridge the Digital Divide.