Experts split on ‘Kindle in Every Backpack’

Education experts are split after a recent proposal published by some influential members of the Democratic Party suggested the government provide electronic reading devices to every student in the United States.

The New Democratic Leadership Council’s (DLC) paper, “A Kindle in Every Backpack: A proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools,” published July 14, states that government should supply each student in the country with an electronic reading device, allowing textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated. It also would allow teachers to tailor an interactive curriculum that engages digital age learners.

“This proposal is just a concept, an idea to be refined and improved with more dialogue and input,” said the proposal’s author, Thomas Z. Freedman, a senior fellow at the DLC who served as a member of the 2008 presidential Obama-Biden Transition Project on the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group.

Although a rapid-scale plan would initially cost $9 billion more than providing traditional textbooks during the first four years of implementation, writes Freedman, school districts would save $700 million in the fifth year and $500 million annually in the years immediately following.

“While the upfront hardware cost of providing a Kindle-like device to every child would necessitate a high front-end investment, costs for eTextbooks themselves would quickly produce a savings compared with print textbooks,” he writes. “If we create savings in one category, the funds can be reassigned to others, like improving teacher pay.”

Freedman added that innovation and advancements in eReader technology would drive the cost of the devices and eBooks down over time, continuing to save money for years after replacing traditional textbooks.

But Peter Von Stackelberg, foresight expert at Social Technologies and adjunct professor at the State University of New York College of Technology at Alfred, said the odds of the Kindle DX completely replacing books are slim.

“Paper-based information delivery systems–aka books, magazines, and newspapers–have a number of features that have been successfully used for centuries. Books are an effective method for displaying text and images in a wide variety of lighting conditions at relatively low cost….Annotation and highlighting of selected information is done easily with pencils, pens, and highlighters,” he said. “The user interface is simple and effective.”

Replacing textbooks and materials with eReaders can cause other problems in the name of saving money, said Corinne A. Gregory, president and founder of SocialSmarts, a schools-based program that integrates social skills, character, and values into core curricula.

“If [the proposal] is trying to lower the cost of textbooks and materials, then you have to consider some other potential problems, such as instead of losing one text book, what happens if a child loses–or has stolen–[his or her] Kindle? Who will bear the cost of the replacement? The students and parents? The schools?” she asked.

“Purportedly, having an electronic reader will be beneficial to students, giving them another technology avenue for education. However — when the studies continue to show that our kids’ brains are negatively affected by too much ‘electronic time,’ and [are] being overwhelmed by multi-tasking — is requiring them to now read and do all their schoolwork electronically a good thing?” Gregory continued.

According to the DLC proposal, current estimates show that $109 per student is spent for traditional textbooks and more than $6 billion is spent annually on textbooks across the education system.

“For the money we’re spending, we should expect a top-notch product. Instead, we send students off to school with woefully out-of-date materials,” Freedman writes. “An eTextbook can be updated across the country as soon as the new [text] is written…Textbook authors and publishers can update specific parts of texts without having to undertake a whole new print run.”

Using a digital textbook system would let districts, schools, and individual teachers pick and choose the best materials for their students, Freedman said.