Which eReader is right for you?

Digital readers offer different features at different price points.

Digital readers are appearing in schools and colleges, and many schools are experimenting with making digital readers available for their students. With dozens of models currently available, it’s hard to know why some are priced less than others, and what features distinguish each reader. In this special feature, eSchool News has assembled an eReader chart to help you quickly and easily compare some of the most popular devices available today.

For example, eReaders with eInk displays are slightly different than those with LCD screens. Some readers say that eInk screens are easier on the eyes, although there is currently little evidence to support this. However, it is much easier to read eInk in broad daylight, because there is no reflective screen glare. Backlit screens are easier to read in the dark, because they provide their own light source. Yet others argue that buyers looking for a “true-to-book” experience don’t generally read in dark rooms. It is true that eInk displays don’t drain batteries nearly as much as their backlit screen counterparts, which is why many devices that use only eInk have far greater battery life.

eReaders with Wi-Fi connections offer varying degrees of internet access. Some simply allow users to download books wirelessly, while others provide full browsers with accompanying keyboards. Some eReaders use solely black-and-white screens (this puts less strain on the battery), while others provide touch screens or color. Screen size is also a factor in price differences. While most screens seem to hover around six inches, those that are significantly bigger are correspondingly more expensive. Some devices support a wider variety of digital text formats than others, making it easier to download books.

There are far too many features of eReaders to document in one chart, but we hope the following table will help you learn more about which of the leading eReader devices will work best for your needs.


NYC schools chancellor quits in a blow to mayor’s vision

Former publishing executive Cathie Black's lack of education experience made her a lightning rod for critics.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said former publishing executive Cathie Black was the perfect choice to head the city’s 1.1 million-student school system, because she was “a superstar manager.”

But her resignation April 7 after three contentious months on the job was the latest in a series of third-term setbacks for Bloomberg—and a defeat of his high-profile school reform bid to hire a business-minded outsider like himself to run the city’s schools.

“I will take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had hoped or expected,” Bloomberg said at a hastily called City Hall news conference to announce Black’s resignation. She did not attend.

Bloomberg surprised even some officials within his administration when he plucked Black from the business world and installed her as head of the nation’s largest public school system. Critics, including many parents of public-school students, assailed her lack of experience as an educator. She had no background as an educator, had never attended public schools, and had not sent her own children to them.

On the job, Black failed to convince the critics they were wrong. Her few unscripted public appearances were marked by gaffes. Meeting with parents concerned about crowded schools, she joked that birth control was the solution. Faced with hecklers at a meeting about closing schools, she heckled back. Two polls put her approval rating at 17 percent.

More school-reform news and opinion:

Expert: Federal school-reform plan is wrong

What the U.S. can learn about improving teacher effectiveness

Opinion: This ‘Superman’ doesn’t fly

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Teachers at some schools erupted in cheers when the news of Black’s resignation broke.

And now, Bloomberg has chosen a new schools chancellor who is Black’s opposite in many ways.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, 59, is a graduate of New York City public schools and hold’s master’s degrees in education and social work. A former kindergarten teacher, Walcott founded the Frederick Douglass Brother-to-Brother program, a mentoring program for boys.


Vote-counting error rocks Wisconsin court race

According to records, the county clerk has faced criticism before.

A stunning discovery of votes in Wisconsin could give the state’s hotly contested Supreme Court race to the conservative incumbent in an election with huge implications for educators in that state. The election was largely seen as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s explosive union rights law, which strips teachers and many other public employees of their rights to collectively bargain.

Adding another twist, the county clerk who said she incorrectly entered vote totals in the race has faced criticism before for her handling of elections and previously worked for a state GOP caucus when it was controlled by the candidate who stands to benefit from Thursday’s revelation.

The corrected totals gave Justice David Prosser a 7,500-vote lead over little-known liberal assistant state attorney general JoAnne Kloppenburg, according to unofficial tallies. Before the announcement, it was assumed the race was headed for a recount. The difference between the two had fluctuated throughout the day Thursday as counties began verifying votes, but at one point was as close as 11.

Opponents of the law that takes away nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights had hoped a Kloppenburg victory would set the stage for the high court to strike it down.

Kloppenburg’s campaign manager Melissa Mulliken demanded a full explanation of how the error occurred and said an open records requests for all relevant documents would be filed.


Feds take huge step to protect student privacy

Lack of clarification around FERPA has created a game of ‘telephone,’ says the Data Quality Campaign.

Asking state leaders to use data to drive school improvement and innovation sounds like a logical idea, but how can they also maintain student privacy in this often treacherous digital age? To help answer this question, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on April 7 released a few innovations of its own.

Student data privacy is not a new concern. In 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was created to address the issue. But as the world goes digital, data breaches become an everyday occurrence, and ED continues to push for data-driven decision making as part of its school reform movements, it’s time to give FERPA a 21st-century makeover, experts say.

The push for a revamp comes not only from digital privacy concerns, but also as all 50 states have committed to building education data systems need to meet the September 2011 deadlines of the federal stimulus.

“The clarification of how FERPA applies to statewide data systems will be in sharp focus in the coming weeks,” said the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) in a press release. “In the 30 years since FERPA was enacted, the data landscape and the role states play in collecting, sharing, and using education data has changed, which has raised new questions about student privacy protections. States have sought clarifications that would not weaken privacy rules, but rather provide clarity and strengthen a confusing and outdated law.”

To meet the needs of privacy in the digital era, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is asking lawmakers to amend FERPA to ensure that ED’s implementation of the law “continues to protect the privacy of education records, as intended by Congress, while allowing for the effective use of data in statewide longitudinal data systems … as envisioned in the America COMPETES Act and furthermore supported under the 2009 [stimulus].”

“Lack of clarification around FERPA has created an unfortunate game of ‘telephone,’ in which different players have received, understood, and passed along different versions of what they have heard about FERPA,” said Aimee Guidera, DQC’s executive director. “States have received jumbled messages, which have created hesitancy to act. We hope these regulations will provide the clear answers that states need to move ahead to support … data use for continuous improvement and protect the privacy, security, and confidentiality of student-level data.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Guidera highlighted some areas where states have needed further clarification of how to comply with FERPA as they build out their data systems.


New online system in Florida helps with math monitoring

A new online systems helps teachers monitor students.

Springtime is testing time in public schools across Florida, with students, teachers and parents focused on high-stakes, year-end assessments. As essential as these exams are, a growing body of research suggests that students do better when teachers assess their skills much more frequently. Now a new system developed at Florida State University gives elementary teachers across the state resources to make that job a lot easier – at least for math.

The Florida Department of Education launched the Math Formative Assessment System (MFAS), a collection of tools, resources and professional development for teachers of kindergarten through third grade. A team from Florida State’s Learning Systems Institute (LSI) designed, built and tested the system with help from elementary teachers and faculty at the FSU College of Education and Department of Mathematics , supported by a $1 million grant from the state Department of Education.

“These new formative assessments complement the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and other evaluations, both interim and year-end, providing data on student knowledge in real time throughout the school year,” said LSI director Laura Lang, principal investigator for the project. “As a result, students are better prepared to learn increasingly more challenging concepts.” In a pilot study conducted on the MFAS, students performed better on summative assessments similar to the FCAT, Lang said.

The MFAS is an ongoing process rather than a test. At the core of the system are 229 sets of math exercises, or “tasks,” available free at www.floridastandards.org. As teachers progress through the curriculum from one state math benchmark to the next, they ask students to perform MFAS tasks relevant to those concepts. But instead of grading the results, teachers ask students to explain their reasoning and prove their solutions. Teachers use all this information to adapt instruction to the specific level of each student, grouping students based on specific misconceptions and gaps in their knowledge. By basing their decisions on students’ cognitive strategies rather than simply whether or not their answers are correct, teachers can fine-tune instruction much more accurately.


Editorial: Frenemy of the people

Some of the Obama administration’s policies seem to contradict its stated goals.

Default Lines column, April 2011 edition of eSchool News—“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”: I was reminded of this phrase in attending the Education Department’s first-ever conference on strengthening school labor-management relations in February.

More than at any other education conference I’ve attended—and I’ve been covering these shows as a reporter for more than a decade—there was a real energy about this event that was palpable, and the superintendents, school board presidents, and labor union presidents who attended seemed genuinely excited about putting the concepts they’d learned into practice when they got back to their districts.

Teachers’ unions and district administrators both are feeling the heat from parents who want to see better results from their schools. They’re also under siege from a new army of education reformers—people such as filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates—who have never worked in a school system before but are convinced they know what’s wrong with U.S. public education.

It’s as if union and district leaders are fed up with outsiders telling them how to run their schools, and they’re now putting aside their differences and joining together in the face of this outside threat to prove they can do the job themselves.

Conference participants seemed grateful to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff for organizing the event, which brought together teams from 150 school systems to learn how a dozen exemplary districts have moved beyond what Montgomery County, Md., Superintendent Jerry Weast called the “ABCs—accuse, blame, criticize” to foster better labor-management collaboration in their schools.

At the same time, however, there was an undercurrent of distrust in Obama administration officials who have been guilty of practicing the “ABCs” themselves—such as in their “turnaround” model for improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

As education researcher Diane Ravitch noted in her keynote address at the American Association of School Administrators’ conference, held in Denver immediately after the labor-management event: “It’s not leadership when, instead of problem solving as a group, you point fingers, lay blame, and dismiss your staff. … These get-tough tactics destroy trust and wipe away morale.”

To many in attendance, the Obama administration’s get-tough tactics seemed to contradict its newfound focus on collaboration. But this isn’t the only example of how the administration’s policies appear in conflict.


Next for education: Teacher avatars

Chemistry teacher Brenda Remus is developing her intelligent avatar.

Hoping to brush up on colonial history, a student looks at a computer screen where a smiling, blinking Benjamin Franklin gazes back. The student types a simple question. “Of course, I signed the Declaration of Independence along with the other forefathers of our country,” Franklin replies.

But this isn’t a scene reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie, complete with moving figures in books and paintings. In fact, it’s a very real technology, in which companies develop intelligent avatars. The avatars look almost exactly like their human counterparts, and the avatar’s knowledge base comprises information from a person’s life and other relevant alternate sources.

Ben Franklin’s avatar is a creation of Intellitar, a Huntsville, Ala., technology firm working to digitally clone educators and knowledge sources to make them more accessible to students at any time, from any place.

An artificial intelligence (AI) engine captures thoughts, experiences, ideas, and personality traits of the person who is being cloned. Intellitar complements the avatars with “alternate knowledge sources” to fill in gaps.

Intellitar has identified a number of potential applications for the avatars, but education, online instruction, and online training have been top focuses.

To populate an educator’s avatar with knowledge, Don Davidson, Intellitar co-founder and CEO, said a common starting point might be a digital curriculum that would serve as an alternate knowledge source. The educator would provide personal experiences as they relate to the subject matter or views on certain topics.


Memidex offers millions of word definitions, etymology, and audio pronunciations

The free online dictionary and thesaurus Memidex has released what it calls the internet’s first combined index of external word definitions, audio, and etymology. Memidex now contains more than 12.5 million detailed references, its makers say—including 5.4 million word definitions, 5.3 million audio references, and 1.8 million etymology references. Each reference includes a title, a list of other associated terms, an excerpt or description of the resource, a link to the actual web page, and a link to cite that specific resource in various established bibliographic styles.

Each audio reference has a button to play the audio directly from the Memidex web page. Users have unlimited playback for audio from open-license sources such as Wikipedia and Wiktionary, and one playback per session for copyright-protected sources. Most of the audio is for pronunciation, Memidex says, while other audio files demonstrate or describe the associated term.

Besides its millions of reference links, Memidex also features tools such as auto-suggest, filtering, and support for mobile devices—making it an easy way to find and compare online word definitions, synonyms, etymology, and audio pronunciation. http://www.memidex.com


‘Funding cliff’ looms as stimulus money runs out

School districts could face huge budget shortfalls as the stimulus money dries up.

As lawmakers around the country debate their states’ budgets, they’re staring over the edge of a massive fiscal cliff—the point where about $100 billion in federal stimulus money for education will run out.

The end of that money will compound states’ severe budget woes and likely lead to thousands of layoffs and the elimination of popular school programs around the country.

The bulk of the money, part of $814 billion provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009, went to save the jobs of teachers and other school employees, as state and local revenue dried up during the prolonged economic downturn. Lawmakers in many states have drawn criticism for making deep cuts in state education funding and replacing it with stimulus money, thus avoiding cuts elsewhere in their budgets.

States are required to have spent most of their education stimulus money by September, and most will burn through it by the end of the current academic year, budget officials say.

And while state economies are showing signs of life, tax revenue is not increasing fast enough to make up the loss.

More on education funding:

How to fight back against devastating budget cuts

Where to find grants for education

How to find private sources of funding

“It’s not like that money was the icing on the cake,” said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, in Denver. “It was the cake.”

Officials in some states saw the cliff coming from the start and encouraged districts to use stimulus money in ways that would not produce ongoing costs they could not cover when the emergency aid ran out, such as for temporary tutors, educational software, or improvements to buildings to make them more accessible for students with disabilities.

“There was a lot of caution about people employing folks, because when that money is gone, it’s gone,” said Ray Lankford, Missouri’s Deputy Commissioner of Education. “A lot of [schools] did program improvements and short-term employment to address specific issues.”

While Congress tried to cushion the blow for states through its approval last year of a $10 billion Education Jobs Fund, state officials say that fund is not enough to replace the lost stimulus money.


‘Teacher cheerleaders’ make online learning successful

Virtual learning can help many at-risk students graduate on time.

As online learning reaches more students in districts across the country, some educators struggle with how they can become successful virtual teachers—but tips from the 2011 National Online Teacher of the Year might help.

Kristin Kipp, who teaches English online at the 21st Century Virtual Academy in Jefferson County, Colo., has been teaching online for three years. Kipp teaches 11th and 12th graders, is an instructional leader for the English department, and is a part-time adjunct English teacher with Colorado Online Learning.

Jefferson County’s 21st Century Virtual Academy is a district-led program that accepts students both from the district and across the state. Many Jefferson County students are enrolled part-time in the virtual academy, taking two or three classes at a local high school and a few courses online. This, said Kipp, has been especially successful, because students are still in “school mode” for their online courses.

Students range from those considered at-risk owing to issues such as poor grades or low attendance, to those hoping to fit in a few extra courses before heading off to college.

For more on virtual learning:

Introducing Online Learning in Your District

eSN Special Report: Blended Learning on the Rise

Kipp said she and some of her colleagues believe many colleges and universities look favorably on students who enroll in online courses.

“Obviously, the world of postsecondary education has moved to online education a whole lot faster than secondary education,” she said. “I think colleges look favorably on it because students already have some experience, and kids who work online have to develop this sense of being a self-motivated learner, and they have to make that decision every day. I think colleges are starting to realize that makes for a student who is well-prepared.”