Reading Redesigned Continues: Kindle2 & Big Rocks from the Sky

Amazon’s Kindle 2 has begun arriving in happy gadget freak’s homes this week. Announced on February 9th by Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bezos, the Kindle 2 is reported to have cleaned up some of the style-points that version one suffered from with a thinner, lighter device and boosted internal memory from 512 MB to 2 GB. But the $359 price that Amazon is keeping for the device, many tech writers say it’s still way too high and will get in the way of the device taking off. But now that the devices are showing up, the geek pull toward shiny electronics seems to be taking hold. I know I’m feeling it.

Following the initial announcement the crew at CNET’s Buzz-Out-Loud podcast noted that it was very Apple-like in it’s form, verbiage and “message” control. The promo video/commercial (above) that I saw on Engadget certainly reminded me of an Apple ad. Question is whether Amazon is going to make the same Apple made 25 years ago when they assumed that everyone would pay extra for a revolutionary device (in Apple’s case the original Macintosh). That mistake almost spelled the end of Apple and we would have missed out on all of the revolutionary things Apple has done since then. As an educator and technologist I see a potential with the Kindle that we cannot afford to miss. And it goes way past the Kindle being a shiny new technology thing.

When I first came to Full Sail University I heard about a program director who asked his students if they had a choice would they prefer to get their texts as books or as electronic books on a small e-book device like the Sony e-Reader or the Amazon Kindle. To his surprise the students, pretty much to a person, choose plain old fashion books over the e-books. In my previous job teaching in a traditional environment, I wouldn’t have been too surprised at the choice of paper books over little electronic devices, but at a place as advanced as Full Sail I would have expected a different answer. Then again, as usability experts have been saying for some time (and I’ve been writing about), people don’t read from computer screens, they scan and skim but don’t read long passages. And in the public’s mind, whether it’s a 17-inch LCD or a e-Book’s “electronic paper,” they seem to perceive the experience to be the same.09-11 FL apartment panoramas Even more than the initial expense of the device, many have said that they can’t imagine curling up with an Amazon Kindle like they would with their favorite book. I can’t argue with that. But as someone who loves having bookshelves filled with hundreds of books, there is something wasteful about large institutions, such as government agencies, universities and school districts, continuing to deliver content in such inefficient ways.

Let’s take my former employer, Long Beach Unified School District, a Southern California K-12 district with 93 schools and over 90,000 students, I’ve seen one of the giant warehouses used for district publications and textbook storage and transportation. This was a very large operation requiring a lot of space, trucks and manpower. I have to wonder, what would be the cost differential between managing, distributing and maintaining one small device per student versus housing, delivering, managing, and repairing four to seven textbooks per student? I don’t have the budget figures for how much it costs LBUSD for the distribution center property that I saw, many acres of valuable Southern California real estate, or how much it must cost to maintain a fleet of trucks and the manpower to keep everything running, but I’m willing to guess that even at retail prices the $360 Kindle2 would shave a significant chunk off the cost of getting text to students. So why is no one considering this particular option?

Let’s consider who would lose out if school districts like LBUSD were to switch from shuffling around mega-tons of dead trees to providing their students with one small electronic device? Well, most of the warehouse employees and truck drivers would probably be looking for different employment opportunities, but I don’t sense that they have the political clout to keep something like this from happening. No, but if the whole cost structure of creating and providing students with textbooks were to collapse the ones likely to complain the most would probably be the politically powerful textbook publishers. In California alone I imagine that billions of dollars of business is being conducted by textbook publishers who in turn are more than a little happy to support the political agencies assigned to regulate the textbook trade. Now imagine what would happen if the whole physical infrastructure of getting educational content to students was to go away. How would the publishers maintain their profit margins, er, I mean justify their costs? Textbook authors work for nothing and the advisory committees for the publishers and the school districts are generally volunteer. If the fiction market is any indication, where the Kindle version tends to be one-third to one-fourth the hard cover cost, the move to something like the Kindle would be pretty much like how a giant rock falling from the sky wiped out the dinosaurs. It would change everything.

Going beyond the political stranglehold textbook publishers have on curriculum, imagine how much more interactive and timely (and correct!) science texts could be, for example? Course design and implementation would go from a top-down roll out to be a collaborative process with the classroom teacher, curriculum writers, and academic subject experts having meaningful roles. Because the expense of updates and error corrections would be wiped out, the ongoing nature of what it means to study a particular academic discipline would actually be reflected in the text. Instead of an impersonal, “fixed” text, edited (to death) by committee, the passion of the classroom teacher for the subject and the text book writer could be more readily communicated in the text. I know it’s heresy, but classroom teachers would actually be able to pick the texts that would work best with their students and not be restricted by some agreement made by some agency who knows nothing about her students or their learning needs. It would change everything. The dinosaurs aren’t going to like it, but we can’t afford to let ’em continue to keep us tied down.

Source: About Long Beach Unified School District, retrieved 02-27-2009, http://www.lbschools.net/District/