Kindles in the Classroom: The Forecast for Education is “Cloudy”

Cloud computing is currently the hot trend in geek- world, if my RSS feeds from Mashable, Ars Technica and Technorati are any indication. The concept of being able to access all your information from anywhere, anytime using any device has a certain appeal, if you can get over the privacy concerns. Much digital ink has been spilled speculating on the benefits and risks of cloud computing, and there’s no need to rehash all that here.  However, one domain where it has the potential to fulfill that trite prediction, “This changes everything!” is in  the field of education. Many critics of the public school system have argued that it is fraught with so many antiquated practices and restrictive union rules that any effort to reform our educational system is doomed to failure. But even in the scorched aftermath of a forest fire, the seeds of a new generation of flora are covertly taking root, and one simply needs to nurture them and be patient while a new ecosystem emerges.

An example of how the Kindle (or another ebook reader) will play an integral role in shaping the future of education appears in an interview with a high school world history teacher conducted by Joe Wikert on his Kindleville blog. The teacher, Chris Edwards, makes some bold and, in my opinion, insightful predictions about the future of learning, as well as the demise of the textbook as we know it:

Practically speaking, there is no way that any district 10 years from now is going to be able to resist buying a $200 Kindle for their students at the beginning of their 7th grade year and then simply buying textbook updates as the student progresses. The money saved and hassle avoided will be tremendous.

I look at the Kindle as a kind of transitional species. Certainly textbook downloading is going to be an important feature for the Kindle, but I actually don’t think that it will be necessary to buy textbooks with them. I really think that humanity is quickly moving toward compiling a kind of Comprehensive Human Memory (CHM) that will exist in binary code form and will, metaphorically, just kind of float above us. This is kind of the case now. We’re simply realizing how to access it. It is very likely that in 20 years we will all be carrying blue-tooth type devices that will access this CHM and bring us whatever facts we need on command.

If I had a class set of Kindles with Internet access I would not, strictly speaking, need a textbook. I could simply access sites that have the historical information I’m looking for and use my state standards as a road map. Textbook companies will, of course, evolve with this. If they are going to compete they are going to have to figure out how to make Kindle books accessible and cheap.

What Mr. Edwards is describing when he talks about “Comprehensive Human Memory” is cloud computing in education: all knowledge is floating out in the ether and it can be accessed on demand, by any device. The device may not be a Kindle, however, given Amazon’s “walled garden” model, which favors content from the Amazon bookstore. The Kindle was developed as a delivery mechanism for Amazon’s content, and for that it achieves its objective. It was not, however, designed to seamlessly access and display a whole array of material that might be considered an integral part of a student’s learning: textbooks (either open source or proprietary), PDFs, Poweprpoints, etc. Two years from now there will likely be a handful of such devices, and while they may not have the Kindle’s national wireless coverage, as more and more campuses and schools offer wi-fi, that may become less of an issue in the education space.

What will almost certainly be widely available will be open source textbooks as start-ups like CK12, Connexions, and Flatworld Knowledge begin to proliferate.  This new, disruptive technology, will at last tilt the economics of  education sharply in favor of the student. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars per year on books with a limited shelf life, they (or the school system) will be able to simply purchase an e-book reader (for less than $200) and put all their semester’s required reading material on it for the price of one college textbook today. Truly a cloudy, but bright, future for today’s students.

Ars Technica asks: “What about the kids?”

In an opinion piece posted July 20 on Ars Technica, Don Reisinger continues to feed the rumor mill about new versions of the Kindle coming this fall and next year (first reported by Crunchgear on July 15). It’s interesting how a story based on an unnamed source (a search on the string ” Kindle 2.0 Coming Around October 2008″ returns over 68000 hits) can instantly become fact as its frequency of cites climbs).

After addressing a few of the current version’s shortcomings, Reisinger goes on to discuss the college textbook market:

So far, Amazon has yet to capitalize on the $5.5 billion textbook market, even though its Kindle seems tailor-made for such a move. Considering the fact that most students are forced to pay at least $100 for a textbook that they need to lug around campus, the future revenue possibilities of offering textbooks at a deeply discounted price to be run on the Kindle are simply huge. Amazon must be aware of that fact, because just a few weeks ago the company announced that it has inked a deal with Princeton to start selling all of its textbooks on the Kindle store for use on the device. The University joined Yale, Berkeley, and Oxford in its support for the Kindle. But Amazon can’t just stop there. In the next iteration of the device, Amazon needs to actively seek out textbook manufacturers and entice them to offer their books in the Kindle store. Upon doing so, Amazon will immediately put its reader in the hands of millions of college students whose parents don’t mind spending $359 on a device that’s specifically designed to stop them from text messaging and keep them studying.

In the immortal words of Smokey Robinson, I Second that Emotion. But as the folks from Amazon go about researching the consumer side of the market, they might want to check out some of the comments posted to the following item on Gizmodo:

…allowing students to bypass the used book store and directly download their textbooks onto their Kindles. You’ll save a few bucks for the digital version, plus shipping costs and shipping time. And if you figure out a way to hack it, that’s like, free textbooks dude. Whoa. We see this extended to concerned parents of elementary school kids who’ve been complaining about how many textbooks they have to lug from home to school and back.

Some (edited for language) comments follow:

This is great. Several years ago, I had the idea of buying my textbooks, scanning them onto my 12″ Powerbook and then returning them for a full refund. The scanning ended up being too tedious and I gave up. ******* expensive textbooks.

The thing that pissed me off in highschool about the books was that we didnt use them every day, and were expected to have them, and the year would go by and we’d ignore 80% of each book. books are just crappy, heavy, portable chunks of outdated wikipedia

Or here’s another novel idea. Publishers, sell books by the chapter as well as the entire book a la iTunes with music. That way, not only would we save money, we’ll only see the chapters that we’ll actually use.

This is the only reason I would ever get a Kindle, and if I could get the ebooks for less than $140 a pop. it sure would beat lugging a bunch of books around.

Yeah, all the textbook makers are really happy about it – the pricing’s gonna be $20 cheaper (off a $200 textbook), but it also means everyone who buys one, buys it. No abilty to sell it back or buy a used copy.Used bookstores are a godsend for students, as is selling back your old textbooks. Naturally, all publishers are irked by this. Countermeasure one is the new edition every term, thus making resale of old texts less than worthwhile (except if you have an enlightened prof who supports old editions).But digital books? Perfect! No resale value, no used bookstore to compete with…