A crack in the dam: Utah school buys 147 Kindles

Well it’s taken less than a year from the Kindle’s introduction for it to find its way into the schools. John McCain would be at home here, because these folks are true mavericks. The board voted last month to approve an expenditure of over $50,000 to purchase 147 Kindles for use in their schools, (albeit not by students):

http://www.sltrib.com/ci_10790737?IADID=Search-www.sltrib.com-www.sltrib.com

The school text market for Kindle is so far small to nonexistent, but Granite officials foresee the day when publishing companies embrace the medium because of simple market forces. Not only would use of the device in schools cut down on paper costs, but it would also cut down on space and energy needed to store books and move them from school to school. Rather than wait months for updated texts, they could instead be downloaded soon after revisions. The days when students strained their developing backs with a pack full of books would be over.


All that’s still to come. For now, Johnson said, the district’s Kindles will be put into the hands of librarians, assistant librarians and technology specialists at its elementary, middle and high schools. Once they’re versed in the ways of using Kindle to promote reading and literacy, what Johnson calls “the third wave” of placing the devices in classrooms can’t be far behind. The opportunity to save education dollars and engage students with technology they can relate to is too great to pass up, he believes.

It’s a small step, but (to borrow a phrase) a giant leap, since it demonstrates that the education market holds real potential as a consumer of this kind of technology, and the textbook publishers would be wise to embrace it. Amazon would be more than happy to help.


What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

An interesting piece in the February 29th Wall Street Journal examines the differences between the US educational system and that of Finland, which consistently places far above the USA on an international academic test (The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA.) Finnish students earned some of the top scores by 15 year-old students who were tested in 57 countries, while American students finished among the world’s C students. In this test, the average score was 500 out of a possible 1000 points. Finland’s scores were Science, 563, Math 548, and Reading 547. Canada’s scores were 534, 527, and 527, and the USA’s were 489, 474, and 495, respectively. When officials from the US Dept. of Education visited Finland to see what they could learn about their educational system, they discovered that Finnish teachers’ salaries are comparable to those of American teachers, but they have considerably more freedom and discretion in choosing books and customizing lessons for their students than their American counterparts. Apparently in Finland, there is little standardized testing, no gifted classes, and kids don’t even start school til the age of seven. Oh, and college tuition is zero.

The article goes on to say:

“One explanation for the Finns’ success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck.”

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120425355065601997.html?mod=hps_us_mostpop_viewed

So, if we want a nation of readers, it appears that all that we need to do is test the kids less and let them read more. Comments?

Welcome to KindlesforKids!

Amazon’s Kindle e-book readerThis blog was established to put forward the concept that Amazon’s new Kindle e-book reader  can play an important part in combatting declining literacy levels among schoolchildren in the US. (And eventually in other countries if the wireless capability is expanded globally. Until that happens, the optional storage card can hold hundreds more than the 200 books that the Kindle’s built in memory can store. This  feature thus brings many of the Kindle’s benefits to regions that currently lack wireless access to it.) Think of it: school kids with access to a virtually unlimited array of textbooks, classic literature, always-on Wikipedia and an array of other educational resources, while simultaneously reducing the weight of their overburdened backpacks! Yes, the current price point is a major deterrent but as the law of declining technology prices kicks in, volume discounts, etc, soon it will be within the reach of many students. For those in need, a non-profit is being established that subsidizes the cost of the unit, thus extend the reach to anyone, regardless of income bracket. Combined with initiatives such as the Gutenberg Project, which offers a catalog of tens of thousands of free e-books, the Kindle could be a more effective solution to achieving the goal of universal literacy than the One Laptop Per Child mission. 
I see the two technologies serving largely different needs and markets.  The mission of the OLPC foundation, as stated on their website, is to empower the children of developing countries to learn by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child (up to the 5th grade). This goal is being achieved by negotiations between the foundation and various third world governments, typically for millions of units. The scale is far more ambitous than what I had in mind for the Kindle, which due to its current wireless capability, will only work in the US. I’m not sure if OLPC is even intended for any US children, but even if it is, I think the Kindle is probably the more effective tool to deal with the literacy gap. It has (or could have, with appropriate licensing deals) everything that underserved middle and high school children would need to raise their literacy levels – all the textbooks, dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference materials, not to mention an always on connection to Wikipedia. (and it plays audiobooks and MP3s). I still believe it would be less daunting to roll out the Kindle to this population than OLPC. I also think the aim of KindlesforKids should be the middle and high-school grades, since this is the stage that reading activity has declined over the last decade. (To see some actual data, refer to the NEA’s recent report: To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence.)
So to move this initiative forward, it is necessary to test the hypothesis that putting Kindles in the hands of  school children who have limited or no access to the materials they need to further their education will somehow improve their literacy. In the US, which like it or not, is obsessed with two terms, tests and standards, (due to  the No Child Left Behind Act), this requires demonstrating a measurable increment in reading scores among school children after a year or two of any introduction of new technology or learning method. Therefore the first step in this process is identifying a population of school children that meets the general standard of “underserved” and that has lower than average literacy scores. This should not be too difficult. The next step is to find an adventurous teacher and supportive adminstration that is willing to conduct this pilot program.
The non-profit organization that I have established, Connect2Books.org, seeks to partner with other organizations and foundations to underwrite the cost of the hardware and a nominal selection of e-books. Any takers? I will use this blog to document my progress. Stay tuned…