At $139, does a Kindle finally make sense?

We're finally getting close to a price where maybe, just maybe, a single-purpose e-reader makes some sense for schools. Here's why:
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I have a Kindle somewhere in my office. I'm not entirely sure where amidst my paper books. notepads, computers, servers, and various bits of kit, nor am I overly concerned. It's there somewhere and, as I tell my kids when they can't find something, it doesn't have legs, right? Besides, the one thing I can usually manage not to lose is my phone and the Android Kindle app has made the actual Kindle completely obsolete for me.

As Jason Perlow pointed out today in his brilliantly titled, "Amazon Kindle will be the sole survivor of the eReader Apocalypse" (say what you will about Jason, the boy can write a headline), multifunction devices like the iPad will be the death of the average e-reader, with Amazon competing solely on the basis of low price and massive content. I agree with him, no matter how much e-ink loyalists swear by the readability of their devices.

Certainly, from an educational perspective, the Kindle has never made much sense to me. It can't handle textbooks, color, video, or interactivity and the keyboard is horrible for taking notes. Amazon can't figure out reasonable DRM for schools and, frankly, isn't even trying. But $139 is cheap money. Jason thinks Amazon will be selling at cost when the e-reader price wars drive the price of the Kindle to $99. The Wall Street Journal thinks Amazon is already losing money on the $139 WiFi-only Kindle that the company announced Thursday. Regardless, we're finally getting close to a price where maybe, just maybe, a single-purpose e-reader makes some sense for schools. Here's why:

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Jason notes that August releases mean Christmas season retail goodness. They also mean summer buying and fall deployments for schools. But why would I even suggest such a device for schools that I have scorned for so long with all of its flaws and missing features for this audience? Because $139 (or $99, or wherever it settles ultimately) would be a small price to pay to drastically increase reading among our students.

Most schools have a curriculum that defines what books and novels will be read each year. Teachers can either select from these or work with the rest of the English department to rotate books and ensure that there are enough books to go around. What if students were able to read all of the books in the curriculum, though? What if some essays or reports or silly busywork was set aside to give students hours to read and read and read. Even for students who couldn't stomach Shakespeare or Faulkner, I'm pretty sure they could find something in the Kindle store to pique their interest.

There are few things better associated with academic success and communication skills than extensive reading. Unfortunately, most of what our students read now consists of their friends' posts on Facebook, comments and reviews on YouTube, and SparkNotes. Obviously, this is a sweeping generalization, but the concern is very real. Could a cheap e-reader loaded up with content and with countless books just a download away make it a little easier for kids to read more?

It would take changes to curriculum and assessment, new approaches to DRM (I'm starting to sound like a broken record on that one, but it's truly key), and creative budgeting to ensure that kids could read and download books that interested or excited them in addition to those outlined by standards and curricula. The same thing could be accomplished on a multipurpose device, of course, especially as the cheap Android tablets start to emerge. However, as the price keeps dropping, a device devoted only to getting students to read gets more and more attractive (and feasible).

I don't know if $139 is the magic number. I'm inclined to believe that Jason's $99 mark is actually the tipping point for schools. $139 was enough to make me sit up and take notice, though, and give some more serious thought to what it would take for Kindles to start really adding value in mainstream school settings.

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