Parting thoughts on the Kindle for students

As much as I would like to hang on to Larry Dignan's Kindle ebook reader, downloading books from all of my favorite authors using his Amazon account, it's time for it to go back (and just when William Gibson's latest, Spook Country, is now available in Kindle format!).

As much as I would like to hang on to Larry Dignan's Kindle ebook reader, downloading books from all of my favorite authors using his Amazon account, it's time for it to go back (and just when William Gibson's latest, Spook Country, is now available in Kindle format!). a book I really need to read Having loaned it to several students and talked with classes and teachers about this slick little electronic book, I do have some final thoughts on its utility for educators.

eSchoolNews featured a piece on the Kindle Tuesday and asked an interesting question: "Can Kindle ignite interest in reading?" I can say with some degree of assurance that the answer is "No." The article quotes statistics from a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, showing some scary trends in reading among young people and adults:

Among its findings: In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24, the college years, read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percentin 1992. Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s. And the number of adults with bachelor's degrees who are "proficient in reading prose" dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.

Some news is good, notably among 9-year-olds, whose reading comprehension scores have soared since the early 1990s. But at the same time, the number of 17-year-olds who "never or hardly ever" read for pleasure has doubled, to 19 percent, and their comprehension scores have fallen.

Yet among all of the students who saw the device, there were only two small subgroups who were excited by its prospects: geeks and avid readers. As one of the aforementioned geeks was demonstrating the interface to my computer club, a painfully shy student of mine who was in the room at the time actually got up, went over to the group, and asked what the Kindle was. This girl never initiates social contacts, but can always be seen wandering around the school with her head buried in a book.

Another student who can barely pull himself away from his books long enough to listen to my geometry lectures lit up at the prospect of a device that could hold 200 books (available much cheaper than in print at Barnes and Noble), fit in his cargo pants, and give him access to almost 100,000 titles anywhere there was reasonable cell reception. I have to echo his sentiments - I really like this thing.

The geeks, on the other hand (and I use that term in the most endearing sense as the leader of the Geek Squad at our school), were impressed by the digital ink, lamented a lack of Java and Flash support on the rudimentary browser, and thought that $0.10 a document was a small price to pay for teachers to send notes and documents to their students (the cost per document emailed to a Kindle). What better way to organize class materials, along with the books they need to read for the classes?

In a way, they're right. Obviously, Amazon would need to come up with an intelligent scheme for getting documents onto fleets of Kindles and handling DRM issues for books that are shared by many students. As a teacher, I really can't pay $0.10 for every document that I want to send to every kid. For a class of 30, that's $3.00 every time I want to send out lecture notes. Similarly, do I need to purchase 600 copies of an ebook so that every student can read The Stranger when they hit the existentialists? Right now, it's sufficient to rotate 60 copies in paperback through the English department.

Yet as a student of Generation iPod, how cool would it be to have a year's English curriculum at your fingertips, with the ability to annotate and markup the books (and export the annotations) without getting in trouble for highlighting school texts? Individual teachers pick and choose their books as well; the Kindle could allow a student who was so enamored of Kafka after reading Metamorphosis to go on and read Die Verwandlung, even if his/her teacher wasn't planning to cover it.

Of course, most students wouldn't do any such thing. However, the Kindle could certainly be a powerful tool if Amazon could put some thought into educational pricing and distribution.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the Kindle, to realize any reasonable return on investment, these ebook readers would have to support more than the English Department, as well. They would need to replace actual textbooks (if not every textbook, then at least enough of them to generate some overall cost savings and save a few trees in the process).

For now, us geeks who actually still like to read are the target audience for the Kindle. However, in my humble opinion, within a couple years, as this product matures, educational institutions and students will become a very important market. I just can't wait for the price to come down so I can snag one myself.

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