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E-Books Help the Mobile Generation Read

But what is an e-book?

A recent Department of Education study found that the $1 billion Reading First program did not have statistically significant impacts on student reading comprehension test scores in grades 1-3. Also, an estimated 63 percent of prison inmates can’t read. See a pattern here? Quick, bring in the new e-book readers from Amazon and Sony. Don’t scoff so quickly—there is evidence that e-books are engaging to children.

But what’s an e-book, anyway? There is absolutely no question that the definition of “book” is fundamentally and dramatically changing. E-books range from paper-based books directly rendered into digital form to interactive, multimedia, online, dynamically changing—ahhh, ahhh—books for which one pays a periodic subscription. The “cell phone novel” is a new literary genre sweeping Japan; four out of the top five spots on the best-seller list were books delivered to cell phones. And some of this genre’s authors actually write their novels using cell phone text messages!

At the same time, there is absolutely no consensus on what the book will become. Inasmuch as “a book” is the cornerstone of K12 education, what’s a school administrator to do today to prepare for what tomorrow will bring?


Why will some boys only read e-books? Our colleague Dave Whyley, who runs the largest mobile learning project in the United Kingdom, has noted for several years that a large number of boys who simply won’t read when given paper-based books enthusiastically read e-books on their handheld devices. Dave reports that they read in bed at night until their batteries die.

Why is texting so compelling for youth? Texting is huge; children would rather send a text message than use their cell phone to make a call. Clearly, children are highly motivated to learn to read—even if the words are unconventional. KWIM? But in texting, writing and reading are intertwined. What can we learn from texting about, for example, how to help struggling readers become better readers?

Why do today’s youth find books irrelevant? In reading a book, one is purposely removed from one’s current context and inserted into the context of the story. But for many of today’s youth, so much of what they do is grounded in their current context; they use their cell phones as lenses onto and amplifiers of their current context. They don’t want to be transported somewhere else—for better or worse. The “kids these days” are not finding The Catcher in the Rye nearly as compelling as we did.

Why are teachers so wedded to their textbooks? While many publishers will provide a digital version of a textbook if a paper-based version is purchased, providing students with Kindle DX’s to read those digital editions may be missing the point. A textbook comes with the teacher’s edition that provides lesson plans, exams, answers, etc. How can a digital version of a textbook—with its interactive, multimedia elements—offer for the same sorts of resources as the paper-based version? Without a trusty teacher’s edition, from where will a teacher get his or her instructional resources?

Our Advice:

Two Aspirin Won’t Help

What is a school administrator supposed to do today when tomorrow is so bloody murky? Some small steps are definitely advisable. For instance, since about 60 percent of the required books in middle and high school language arts are available for free online, use them right now on whatever computing devices you already own. The reading experience on a laptop screen won’t be as good as on something smaller, but it’s a start. Your students will read more—and that will surely impact test scores positively.

Now you can scoff at dedicated e-book reading devices. Save your money for a more comprehensive, future-oriented strategy. Think hard before buying “e-book appliances,” since they have, by definition, limited functionality. They do one thing—display book pages.

Such a future-oriented strategy really needs to involve a 1:1 districtwide rollout. Unlike the future of the book, predicting that each and every child in America will soon have his or her own mobile computing device is easy—it’s inevitable. DA

Visit Cathleen and Elliot’s Tech Disruptions blog.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder and chief education architect at GoKnow Learning in Ann Arbor, Mich. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and co-founder of GoKnow.