In July, Thomas Freedman of the The New Democratic Leadership Council published a short call to arms paper about outfitting every school child with a eTextbook reader. He heavily refers to Amazon’s Kindle, including it even in the title of the paper A Kindle in Every Backpack: a proposal for eTextbooks in American Schools. The paper outlines plenty of good reasons why our education systems should embrace eTextbooks and their associated e-readers. These are very clear. However, I think to get the impact Mr. Freedman is advocating, two things need to be addressed which are not mentioned in the paper. One is that instead of a particular device such as an Amazon Kindle, the focus should be on a universal, open source format. This format can deliver the textbook content to many different e-reader devices instead of just one or two that work with a proprietary format. And second, the technology Freedman mentions that kids want is not exactly ready for the e-readers of today. Let’s take a look at these two critical areas as they are important to this discussion.
Amazon’s Kindle format is fairly closed and the tight control Amazon exerts over it was evident recently when George Orwell’s 1984 was yanked digitally off the devices without the owners knowing it until after the fact. It caused quite a stir and had Jeff Bezos candidly apologizing for this. In this day and age, closed formats need to tread very lightly and e-books are no exception. Yes, I understand that we need to deal with copyright and rights management. Hopefully the lessons of the music industry can be applied to this nascent area of technology. The Kindle does support other formats which are more open as well in all fairness, but they are clear that they want you to buy your content from them.
As it stands now, there are plenty of proprietary formats already floating around from Amazon, Sony and soon, Barnes and Noble when they work with Plastic Logic to deliver e-books. Now, I can understand that distributors would want to seal off competiors by making their devices only read their proprietary format, but for educational purposes, this is not a good thing and so I think it should be clearly stressed that for such a national inititiative, an open e-reader format should be embraced and supported, perhaps with government support. Don’t let one tech company lock everyone into one format. Keep the eTextbook format by demanding, by law, that eTextbooks should be as openly accessible as possible. Just as paper textbooks can be loaned, shared and exchanged easily in the traditional book format, so too should an eTextbook. Learning cannot be proprietary.
Enter the Portable Document Format (PDF) that has become our ubiquitous digital document format. While it was created and is controlled by Adobe Systems, they have given the PDF format a long enough leash that it is supported on all major platforms and is quite portable in the digital domain. And while PDFs can have some embedded multi-media, this is far from the norm. Its mostly text and images that you get with a PDF. Many of the current e-readers do support the PDF format and can display their contents on the E-Ink screens. The viewing mileage you get out of looking at PDF on something like a Kindle or Kindle DX will vary. Its not great but it works on the E-Ink screens. E-Ink is developed by a private company and licensed out to the manufacuterers who want to use the E-Ink screens on their devices. The big problem with PDFs on e-readers, especially the smaller ones, is that the documents are static. The images and words do not flow to fit neatly on the small screen for reading. You have to zoom in on a page, then scroll around to read it, or you are stuck looking at the PDF at one size such as the case with the Kindle DX, which has a large screen, but you can’t resize a PDF to suit your viewing needs. One e-reader manufacturer does make a device that is specifically for looking at PDFs. It uses its own software to take a PDF and make it fit on the page nicely with text flowing around images and fitting on the smaller screen better. Its not perfect, but its a step in the right direction. But again, we are really talking about text and images, not other types of multimedia.
This brings up the other point related to Mr. Freedman’s article. He mentions the ability for students to take quizzes and have multimedia, etc on such devices. Well, that may take some time and if that is truly desired in the near future, then one needs to look at other devices such as laptops, netbooks or tablets that have operating systems (and batteries) capable of handling video, animation, web connectivity and interactivity (i.e. Flash). He points out that about half of students questioned about what they wanted in their classrooms responded with wanting access to real time data visualized like what you get with Google Earth. As a huge fan of the GeoWeb, I could not agree more, but you are not going to get a Google Earth experience on a Kindle or other e-reader (btw, Google Earth requires some high bandwidth connectivity and a decent graphics card to really shine). E-Ink is rumored to have color screens out perhaps in the the next year or so and is playing with them in their labs now. However, for this technology to support all the multimedia goodness we are used to on our full computers, this may still be out a few years. For now, the e-reader devices promise heaps of books in your pocket (see no backpacks needed) and the ability to have instant access to your personal library. But they are mostly still a passive reading experience. And that is fine, but don’t expect them to sing iTunes and do the Flash app dance. The Kindle does have a rudimentary web browser and its Verizon Whisper sync wireless technology is nifty for delivering books, blogs and newspapers, something the other devices are lacking to a large degree, but e-readers are not multimedia machines (yet). A possible exception to the multimedia dilemma is found on Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch which are quite capable multimedia devices and decent, if not perfect e-readers too. I have found the iPhone Kindle app to be surprisingly good at reading Amazon’s Kindle books. The device is always there so I read at times I normally would not, such as waiting in line to get on a plane, see a movie, etc. Its there when the moment strikes to read a few pages. In addition several iPhone apps offer decent PDF viewing experiences too such as Readdle’s ReaddleDocs app or their new PDF Expert app. AirSharing and AirSharing Pro also offer some good PDF reading capabilities. And it is highly likely that Apple will release some form of a tablet like device in the next six months that will handle multimedia along with e-books so this could perhaps bring the future to us a little faster than E-Ink screens will.
So these are my words of caution for embracing eTextbooks for all school kids. I think this needs to happen and it will happen, I just hope it happens smoothly and those that make it happen keep formats open and embrace new technology that will merge the written word with the moving image and beyond. This perhaps will get people reading in an entirely new way while transforming the learning process and moving the venerable textbook into the age of bits and bytes.
You can read the PDF (perhaps with your e-reader!) of Mr. Freedman’s paper here.