According to a new report from the Democratic Leadership Council, digital reading devices such as Amazon's Kindle could be a useful tool for improving student learning.
In a proposal released last month, the group argues that a K-12 education system where each student has an E-book reader like Amazon's Kindle is "inevitable" and that we shouldn't wait "a decade or two" to achieve it.
Thomas Z. Freedman, the primary author of the paper, writes that having a "Kindle in every backpack" (the title of the proposal) is not just an educational gimmick but could improve education quality and save money.
"For less money than is spent on conventional textbooks, E-textbooks, over time, could deliver a regularly updated, interactive, and 21st-century education to our children," effectively competing for their attention in the digital age, says Freedman.
The Kindle is a portable hardware device developed by Amazon.com that lets you wirelessly download and read digital books (and magazines and newspapers). Similar devices include the Sony Reader and the Hanlin eReader.
The authors of the paper cite research by Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit group, that found that 29 percent of students already use an E-textbook or online curriculum and have clear ideas about what a useful E-textbook would look like. Only 5 percent of parents dislike the concept of E-textbooks, according to the research.
The DLC paper proposes a yearlong pilot program that would furnish some 400,000 students—about half a percent of all K-12 students nationwide—with government-supplied E-reading devices. If judged a success, the program would be scaled up to include the entire student population within four years. Freedman writes that the plan would initially cost about $9 billion more than the amount currently spent on print textbooks—about $6 billion—but that savings of $700 million would kick in during the fifth year of the rollout. He says that $500 million would be saved annually in the years immediately following.
Not so fast, some education experts say. Jing Lei, assistant professor of instructional design, development, and evaluation at Syracuse University's school of education and author of the book The Digital Pencil, is doubtful that five years from now the Kindle (if such a device is still on the market) would offer the same advantages that it does today.
"Then what do you do?" she asks. "Do you keep updating all the hardware and software? There's a lot of long-term costs of implementing a program like this."
Corrine Gregory, president and founder of SocialSmarts, a program that teaches students social skills and values, says that the proposal is rife with flaws. She says it's an example of the Whac-A-Mole approach to education reform: "Whenever something new pops up, the immediate, knee-jerk reaction is, 'Oh, we should do this .' We never really step back and ask ourselves what problem exactly are we trying to solve.
"Kids' ability to stay on task and focused has nothing to do with type of vehicle by which they're consuming their education," Gregory says. "Bringing in another gadget will only exacerbate that problem. And how will the teacher control or monitor what the student is supposedly reading?"
At the Las Virgenes Unified School District in Southern California, educators are leveraging the capabilities of E-textbooks on PCs and in printouts rather than on portable, Kindle-like devices. Superintendent Donald Zimring admits there was an initial break-in period for the teachers but says that the learning benefits have been notable.
The district—99 percent of whose students already have computers at home—has been using digital books in fourth- and fifth-grade science classes and 11th-grade math classes since 2007. With the technology, students can view video demonstrations of lab experiments or perform digital heart dissections. Math lessons are taught on IBM ThinkPad laptops.
There is no evidence, however, that the E-texts improved math or reading scores, Zimring says.
While he says that there are educational advantages of E-textbooks, whatever their delivery method might be, he stresses that their success in the classroom will not come simply from repurposing textbook information to fit on a screen. He argues that digital books work best when they are used to bring together multimedia from a variety of sources to support a more comprehensive, interactive form of learning.
Corrected on 8/27/09: A previous version of this story suggested that the Democratic Leadership Council report asserts that the use of Kindles is more important than better standards, merit pay for teachers, or rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure of America's aging schools.