Ereaders in the classroom

Posted on 08-04-2012

There have been a couple of posts on Dan Willingham’s blog recently about the value of ereaders in the classroom.

I should declare an interest here – I was one of the first people in this country to get a Kindle. I still have it and I love it. I am obsessed with it. People who hear me talk about it say I should work for Amazon in sales.

When it comes to use in schools, the Kindle (I don’t know an awful lot about other ereaders – apologies) has a couple of obvious advantages over books. In the long run, Kindles will be cheaper. There is a large upfront cost, but every book written prior to 1930 is free on it, and lots of etexts tend to be cheaper than their non-virtual equivalents. Also, interestingly, you can register up to six Kindles to one Amazon account. You will only have to buy a book once for those six Kindles to be able to access it. (This is certainly the rule for personal ownership – I am not sure if this does hold true for Kindles being used in schools. Certainly I can imagine that publishers would not be happy about this). I would also imagine that natural wastage would be reduced, although this depends on how robust the Kindles are in the classroom. Generally it would be simpler and more efficient to have a cupboard of ereaders, or even to issue every pupil with one, than to have cupboards and cupboards of textbooks.

Despite this, I am still fairly sceptical about their use – or that of any ereader – in the classroom. The main reason for this that they can be very distracting. This is what Dan Willingham’s first article is about. Although the Kindle does not offer as many distractions as the iPad or even just a desktop computer, there are still a lot of things you can do on it that aren’t reading. I succumb to these distractions sometimes – for example, when a Kindle book links to an internet site, you can click on the link and read it straight away. And when a Kindle book mentions another book, it can be very tempting to go to the online store, find the book, and download a sample. Sometimes this can be handy of course. But sometimes it is just a distraction. Instant connectivity is not always a boon. Nick Carr makes this point very well in The Shallows (a book, incidentally, that is not available on the Kindle). Because I am an adult, I like reading and I have self-discipline, these distractions are not so terrible. I worry that a lot of my pupils won’t be able to avoid these distractions.

I worry, too, that later versions of the Kindle will actually make such problems worse. As technology gets better and cheaper, it become easier for devices to become ‘smart’ and have lots of different functions. The web browser on the Kindle is very slow and basic, and is an obvious thing that could be improved in later versions. But I hope they never do improve the web browser on the Kindle. I like the fact that it is a dedicated single-purpose ereader. I don’t have a tablet but I can imagine it would be very difficult to concentrate whilst reading one – the temptations would be so great. I have this problem at the moment with my computer – sometimes it is hard to concentrate on a long piece of reading or writing whilst at the screen because there are so many other things I could be doing. So I have a programme on my computer called ‘Freedom‘ which allows me to switch the internet off for a set amount of time. Again, if I find such Coleridgean self-denying ordinances necessary (and according to the Freedom website, so too do Nora Ephron, Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Naomi Klein), it is likely my pupils will face similar problems.

Two particular improvements would make me keener on using Kindles in the classroom. Firstly, I would like them to have a ‘lock’. That is, certain features like the web browser, the Kindle store and the games should only be accessible with a password. Secondly, I would like to see a special basic dictionary developed for the Kindle. One of the most amazing features of the Kindle at the moment is that you can look up any word in the text you are reading just by hovering the cursor next to the word in question. This is an amazing feature, however, if you have enough knowledge to make it worthwhile. As E.D. Hirsch shows, ‘Just Looking It Up’ only works if you have knowledge to make sense of what you are looking up. My Kindle came with the Oxford American Dictionary pre-loaded. Apparently it is possible to load any dictionary you want. For most pupils, I think the best and least distracting dictionary they could have in this situation would be a very basic one that gave one-word definitions of more difficult words, rather in the way that a teacher might gloss a difficult comprehension. This dictionary should not include definitions of very basic words such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘the’, etc, as pupils know what these words mean and definitions of them are often quite distracting. I don’t know of any dictionary like this at present.

These two requests are quite odd, I know – I am asking for improvements that seem like regressions. But I do think these two changes would make the Kindle specifically, and ereaders in general, more valuable. The second point Willingham makes, which is that textbooks may not convert as easily to ereader format as novels have, is also valid. Essentially, I would want to wait a couple of years for more information and improvements before deciding whether or not to convert a school over to ereaders.