Kindle Fire: Edu holy grail or one more DRM-ridden toy?

We're so close I can taste it. But the business models and content just aren't there yet.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I can't think of too many techies who weren't excited to get their Kindle Fires this week. Amazon's vast library of books and Apps (a decent subset of those available on the Android App Store as well as many available only on Amazon which seem to exclude large swaths of junk apps through which we would otherwise need to wade) on a $199 device can't be a bad thing, right? In fact, at $199, one can't help but get fired up at the prospect of getting inexpensive devices optimized for reading and interactive content consumption. I certainly did when Amazon first unveiled the device.

So where's the catch? It's light, relatively rugged, small enough to work for students from Kindergarten to grad school (and large enough to be useful for those older students), and runs all sorts of educational apps. And it's $199! Unfortunately, I think Audrey Waters over at Hack Education is probably right:

Now, I have no doubt that Amazon’s tablet will be a wildly successful commercial device, don’t get me wrong. Hell, as someone who’s a fairly loyal Amazon customer, I’ll probably buy one myself. But do I think that this is the tablet device schools have been waiting for? No. Not remotely. The price point may sound appealing, but those who are looking for a tech bargain here should read some of the fine print.

I actually still believe my original position on the Kindle Fire is correct: The technology in its Silk browser (privacy concerns aside) that leverages cloud computing power, the price point (which will keep dropping), and the form factor can absolutely enable some big leaps forward in 1:1 computing. The technology is in place and the distribution channels for the right content exists in Amazon's toolkit. However, there is a lot missing.

As Ms. Waters points out, Amazon's approach to DRM is fairly Draconian and absolutely doesn't lend itself to a K12 model:

I have to wonder, if schools adopt the Kindle Fire, does that means they are required to make all textbook purchases from Amazon? I think so, unless, of course, Amazon allows other booksellers to put apps on the device. I guess that’s possible. It also means that schools are using devices that do not support the ePUB open standard (or at least, Kindles currently do not handle ePUB. It is possible too that the Kindle Fire will allow other apps to do this.)

Up to 5GB of content (various document types, other than EPUB) can be stored on the Kindle Fire and get to it via email. In theory, teachers or schools could blast documents as attachments to every student's Kindle. However, CK12's FlexBooks, for example, often run in the hundreds of megabytes, making email distribution impossible.

That, by the way, would be the other catch: content distribution and management. Lending models are only vaguely supported and there is currently no good way to manage a large deployment of devices. Amazon has some very cool cloud-based means of synchronizing purchased content across devices and web dashboards for managing those devices, but these must be associated with an email account, not an enterprise model. Apple, by the way, hasn't exactly perfected this either, but they are much closer in terms of being able to deal efficiently with 1:1 iPad initiatives.

The Kindle Fire represents an important step in the evolution of digital content and delivery and I predict a lot of students (young and old) will be getting Fires for the holidays. That's great and I hope they bring them to school and read, interact, tweet, and otherwise engage with them. However, they won't be seeing the sorts of interactive or open textbooks that they need and educational technologists will struggle, as with many devices, to integrate them into the learning experience. And textbook publishers? I don't see too many of them knocking on Amazon's door for distribution deals and partnerships either.

We're getting there, folks...but we're not there yet. Not until Amazon (or some other distributor) makes some very serious overtures to e-learning with their DRM and distribution models.

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