The Kindle has game-changing implications for education.

The Kindle has game-changing implications for education.

Schools’ use of digital textbooks began long before 2009, but it was a watershed year for this emerging trend in education.

At the K-12 level, California and Texas–two bellwether states for textbook purchasing–opened the door for local school systems to adopt digital texts. In higher education, inspired by the introduction of a Kindle electronic reader designed specifically for textbooks, several colleges and universities announced pilot projects to see how well the technology meets students’ needs.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this past spring launched an ambitious initiative to see if the state’s 6 million public school students could use more online learning materials, including open courseware–perhaps saving millions of dollars a year in textbook purchases. Now, other states are watching to see how the initiative fares.

“California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers, and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press,” Schwarzenegger wrote in an op-ed piece published in the San Jose Mercury News in June.

In a state with a projected $24 billion budget deficit over the next five years, Schwarzenegger asked education officials to review a wealth of sources that already are on the internet, many of which are free, and determine whether they meet California’s curriculum standards. In response, state education leaders in August released a list of resources they have determined meet state-approved standards for high school math and science classes.

In Texas, legislation passed last spring could put up-to-the-minute instructional content at students’ fingertips, either online or in customized printed form–eliminating the mass-market hardback textbook. The sea change could happen sooner rather than later, beginning as early as the 2010-11 school year.

“This is one of the few times we can do things cheaper, faster, and better all at the same time,” said the measure’s author, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. The legislation is one of two recent bills that allow the Texas Education Agency to create its own repository of digital textbook content.

By switching to online content, Texas schools could save money, customize materials to fit students’ needs, and more easily integrate textbooks with video, software, or other technology, advocates of the legislation said.

In November, the Texas Education Agency took the first step toward such a vision by calling for bids for online material from both traditional publishers and online content providers. Texas officials expect to have the first online materials available for students in fall 2010.

The move toward online content in both California and Texas will affect other states, too, because publishers tailor their products to conform to the needs of states with the most students.

Cushing Academy, a private boarding school in Ashburnham, Mass., this past summer began getting rid of most of its library’s books. In their place is a fully digital collection of books, available for reading on students’ computers or a collection of Kindle eBook readers that students can check out. Library watchers say it could be the first school library, public or private, to forsake ink and paper in favor of eBooks entirely.

They might not be as revolutionary as Cushing Academy, but this fall at least five colleges and universities began piloting Amazon’s Kindle DX electronic reading device, which is designed specifically for reading textbooks.

The Kindle DX, unveiled during a May 6 press conference at Pace University in New York, sports a 9.7-inch screen, compared to the 6-inch screen on the original Kindle. It also features a built-in QWERTY keyboard for note taking. The handheld reader will let users read magazines, newspapers, and textbooks complete with images and graphics. Users also can read PDF files on the Kindle DX–a selling point for faculty members whose courses regularly assign class readings on PDF files.

Officials at colleges and universities piloting the new device said they would carefully track how the Kindle DX affects learning for students accustomed to lugging heavy textbooks from building to building throughout their academic careers.
“Is this the watershed device of electronic text readers we’ve been waiting for?” asked Marty Ringle, chief technology officer at Reed College in Portland, Ore., which gave Kindles to students in three courses this fall. “Or is it a just another evolutionary step on the way to that revolutionary device? We’ll see if it’s a viable alternative to print media.”

Inspired by the launch of the Kindle DX, a controversial proposal published by some influential members of the Democratic Party suggested that the government should consider providing electronic reading devices to every student in the United States in lieu of traditional textbooks.

The New Democratic Leadership Council’s paper, “A Kindle in Every Backpack: A proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools,” published July 14, suggested that federal officials should supply each student in the country with an electronic reading device, allowing textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated. This also would allow teachers to tailor an interactive curriculum that engages digital age learners, the paper argued.

“This proposal is just a concept, an idea to be refined and improved with more dialogue and input,” said the proposal’s author, Thomas Z. Freedman, a senior fellow at the DLC who served as a member of the 2008 presidential Obama-Biden Transition Project on the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group.

Although a rapid-scale plan initially would cost $9 billion more than providing traditional textbooks during the first four years of implementation, wrote Freedman, school districts would save $700 million in the fifth year and $500 million annually thereafter.
“While the upfront hardware cost of providing a Kindle-like device to every child would necessitate a high front-end investment, costs for eTextbooks themselves would quickly produce a savings compared with print textbooks,” Freedman wrote. “If we create savings in one category, the funds can be reassigned to others, like improving teacher pay.”

Digital books might represent the future of textbooks, but Amazon and other e-reader companies still have a long way to go to make it happen–even for a technology-saturated generation that should be more receptive to the shift: Early responses from students at the campuses piloting the Kindle DX have been lukewarm so far.

Most said they liked the prospect of having anytime access to a semester’s worth of reading on the Kindle, which can wirelessly download books or get material by being plugged into a PC. But several students said they disliked taking notes on a keyboard with Tic-Tac-sized keys that sits under a 9.7-inch screen.
“I like the aspect of writing something down on paper and having it be so easy and just kind of writing whatever comes to my mind,” said Claire Becerra, a freshman at Arizona State University.
Becerra tried typing notes on the Kindle’s small keyboard, but when she went back to reread them she found they were laden with typos and didn’t make sense. After a month, she said she takes far fewer notes and relies on the Kindle’s highlighter tool instead.

Students also have an increasing number of options for reading electronic books beyond just Amazon’s Kindle–and one commenter to a recent story at eSN Online wondered what all the hype about the Kindle DX was about.

“There are eBooks available for every major textbook through CourseSmart and VitalSource,” the reader observed. “They can be downloaded or accessed online to [a] desktop, laptop, netbook, [or] even an iPhone. There are lots of other eBook [options] out there that have better features than the Kindle.”

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