Should Your School Replace Textbooks With Ereaders?

This February, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged the nation to transition to digital textbooks in the next five years. Only a month prior, Apple announced the ever so controversial iBooks 2 for iPad, which partnered the biggest leaders in publishing, put textbook writing in the hands of many, and drove down the cost of classroom reading (with the exception of the cost of the iPad). As the shift to digital picks up momentum, administrators and educators have rushed to adopt 1:1 programs with iPads, Chromebooks, and netbooks. Yet, what about ereaders?
Ereaders took center stage with the release of the first Kindle in November 2007. By the end of 2011, Amazon reported that ebook sales surpassed paperback sales for the first time. The consumer shift to digital reading was apparent. Yet, what about the education market?
This month, I got my hands on two popular ereaders: Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Simple Touch, priced at $99, and Sony’s Ultra-Light Reader WiFi Touch, priced at $129.99. Both devices are incredibly small and lightweight, lightening the load of textbooks. They’re also durable with flexible plastic that is safe tossed into a bag or backpack. Being an iPad user myself, I reached out to my network of ereader fanatics and educators for some additional thoughts.
You may have seen the comedic commercials from Kindle that took a stab at the Apple iPad’s shiny LED screen. The Ultra-Light Reader displays a matte, black and white screen, making it easier on the eyes and more book-like. There’s also real value in the Nook’s E Ink screen and “Glowlight,” which make it easy to read in sunlight, at night, and especially in the classroom. At a basic functionality of tech in the classroom, sunlight should never be an inhibitor to learning.
“I love my Nook Simple Touch because the pages remind me of a classic paperback. Although I am extremely innovative, there is something about a backlight while I am reading a book that I do not like,” said Ali Freezman, an SEO consultant at SEER Interactive, in conversation. “For things like reading magazines and the news I prefer to have the LED screen so I can see photos and videos in color. But when it is a book, it needs to look like a book.”
Yet, reading books, magazines, and PDFs is all it does. Many administrators and educators are looking to ereaders like the Nook as low-cost and digital replacements for textbooks to put a lock down on distractions found on other ereaders or tablets.
“We often compare technology distractions to some ideal that doesn’t really exist,” said educator Adam Renfro. “It’s not like kids have 100 percent focus now, but that’s what we compare it too. I think most kids have ‘winked out’ after 20 minutes in our artificial world of school that resembles something more like a museum display than the real world.”
Renfro recalls that his daughter was permitted to bring an ereader to school, but not an iPad or tablet, for strictly digital reading purposes. Yet like many Generation Z students, she didn’t stay enchanted long. “After getting used to the iPad, she told a friend that a Nook was how their ancestors read books,” said Renfro. “So I upgraded her to a Kindle Fire, which is basically a tablet.”
Innovative educators like Renfro have different ideas in mind for digital textbooks and tablets, which transform the “distractions” schools fear: engagement, collaboration, content creation, and more. Their solution is a device that emulates more of a tablet or netbook, rather than simply a reading device.
The Ultra-Light Reader comes close to the functionality of the tablet with:

  • Wi-Fi access to more than two million books and periodicals
  • Built-in dictionaries and translations
  • Hand-written and memo-pad note-taking capabilities
  • Ability to play music and view pictures; and
  • Document storage.

“I believe an ereader that allows for customization of font size, audio options, dictionary support, Internet research, note taking, and organization of notes can help students read and comprehend content at new levels that were not accessible to them previously,” said educator Alison Anderson. “They also give instant access to books that previously had to be ordered, delivered, etc. There is a movement towards digital, up-to-date textbooks, so students can always read relevant information instead of outdated, recycled texts.”
“In the newer ereaders, you can share your annotations with your teacher,” added Renfro. “I’m a big annotator, and I like how it changes reading into an ‘active’ exercise. Traditional classroom books you can’t markup and annotate, but it’s not a problem with e-readers.”
“Ereaders also lighten student’s backpacks, but that should NOT be the only motivation or benefit for integrating ereaders into the classroom! I think that should really just be a bonus,” added Anderson.
Still, the device falls short of the ability to allow students to practice writing and collaboration – valuable 21st century skills. Ereaders are primarily a single-function device, much like a clicker. It brings us back to a few vital questions about the technologies necessary in the classroom for the success of Common Core State Standards implementation and 21st century skill development:

  • How many devices do students need to consume (read and research) and create (write) learning? Tom Vander Ark talks about the 3-screen day, which includes primarily content creation devices. Renfro adds, “I wouldn’t want to carry around two watches, one with the time and the other with an alarm.”
  • What kinds of content (books and novels vs. blogs and OER) do students need to consume for success in the future? Educator Susan Lucille Davis talks about how we need to teach writing for a socially mediated world.

“I want kids writing across the curriculum,” said Tom Vander Ark. “I want their primary device to be a production device. My first preference is laptops and second preference would be tablets. Schools should not buy print textbooks; but there are much better and cheaper alternatives than ereaders.”
The reality is that ereader savings may not be significant enough to be a feasible excuse for textbook replacement. While iPads start at $399, the Kindle Fire is about $60 more than the Ultra-Light Reader at $199. Educator Susan Lucille Davis said she’d consider a Kindle Fire over an iPad to cut costs while still leveraging content creation power on the device.
Android also makes Internet-ready devices in the $200 price range. And over in India, the government released the world’s cheapest tablet, the $35 Aakash Android, last October. The prices of the Nook and Ultra-Light Reader have been blown out of the water and mere textbook replacement falls short of vision.
“Nevertheless, you have to make do with the budget that you have, so I’m sure some districts will be purchasing stripped down ereaders,” said Renfro. “That’s better than nothing. With the widening digital divide in our country, many students will never have seen an ereader. So it will be a start for them.”
Innovative leaders are looking beyond the Department of Education’s digital textbook call to content creation devices that foster 21st century skills for students’ futures.
Disclosure: Getting Smart received these e-readers from Staples, the office supply professionals. Visit to see their full selection e-readers. Photo courtesy of BigStock. This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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1 Comment

Beth Rabbitt (@BethRabbitt)

I'm part of the startup team for a new blended learning charter school system, and we'd love to figure out ways to incorporate e-readers into our approach. We're a paperless school system, but most of our students don't have wifi at home and transporting laptops between home and school puts our kids at risk. E-readers seemed like a great option as they'd allow for the reading of digital content offline and would be of ow enough cost. However, what we've discovered through our own due diligence is that e-readers are incredibly hard to administer... there's not a great back-end that lets us track book purchases/content licenses, sync reading data to our other instructional systems, or easily push out content to students. We need ways to manage our purchases given our resource-constrained, urban school environments. I would be psyched to see someone tackle this part of the problem!

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