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The End of Textbooks?

A new kind of eReader-Amazon's Kindle-is here. But is higher ed ready to leave tactile covers, pages, and spines behind?

The End of Textbooks?CHRISTMAS CAME EARLY this past year for technophiles. It came in the form of the Kindle-a portable eReader that wirelessly downloads books, blogs, magazines, and newspapers to a crisp, high-resolution display. Demand for the tool was so intense that even as of this writing, its exclusive vendor, Amazon, has a waiting list of many months. According to reviewers, the $399 tool warrants the hype. Not surprisingly, the device's advent has caused campus technologists and techno-savvy academics alike (not to mention textbook publishing execs) to wonder: Is this the eReader that could change higher education forever?

Mark Greenfield thinks so. Greenfield is director of web services at the University at Buffalo (NY), and also serves as a consultant specializing in the use of emerging technologies in higher education. Within only hours of the Kindle's release, Greenfield wrote about the potential impact of the device in his blog at To summarize the post: Though textbooks raked in $6.5 billion during the 2005-2006 academic year (according to the National Association of College Stores), textbook publishers should watch their backs.

"Continuing advancements with eReader technology could have a serious impact on traditional college textbook publishing," Greenfield predicts.

What's the Allure?

For Greenfield, Kindle's appeal is all about the interface. He hails the device for its content-download mechanism (which operates over the Sprint EV-DO high-speed network) and says the technology will be even better once 3G wireless is available throughout the US.

Dubbed Whispernet, this Sprint WiFi access currently is free. Amazon pays for the connectivity for Kindle so there are no monthly wireless bills, data plans, or service commitments for customers, beyond the ones they already have with their cellular providers.

Another Kindle highlight, according to Greenfield, is the suite of interactive features, including the ability to add notes, highlight text, and search, which makes the device ideal for college students. He says these simple benefits incorporate the best of tablet PC, PDA, and whiteboard technologies, bringing them together in a medium that's both convenient and easy to use.

"Compared to digital devices, the printed book has many limitations in presenting information- particularly in that it is limited to words and pictures," he says. "For some academic disciplines this is fine, but for others the ability to use rich media-audio, video, animations, and 3D simulations-provides an improved learning experience."

Perhaps most importantly, Greenfield is enthusiastic about users' newfound ability to tote numerous books in one, 10.3-ounce device. He adds that once Kindle users fork over the up-front cost of the device, they'll come to see that the tool actually will save them money, since publishers will sell eBooks for far less than they would sell printed books, either used or new.

More Positive Reaction

Some pundits are lauding Kindle's use of electronic paper technology, which provides a sharp black-and-white screen that is as easy to read as printed paper. The screen makes use of "ink," but displays the ink particles electronically, and reflects light similarly to the way ordinary paper does. In addition, the screen does not employ backlight, which eliminates the eyestrain and glare associated with other electronic displays such as computer monitors.

Mike Masnick, CEO of Techdirt, a California-based market research firm, also likes the Kindle's respectable battery life: Amazon claims that with wireless off, Kindle's battery can last up to a week. For this and many other reasons, Masnick says universities are one of the prime places where use of the Kindle could make real sense. He says that in the higher education environment, Kindle offers a legitimate benefit to users, since "lugging around books is a huge pain."

Still, Masnick warns that users may become too dependent on the tool. He says that because the product is so new, users have not had the opportunity to get a legitimate sense of glitches and inexplicable functionality problems that could prove to be costly for some. "The one question that will really come up is how durable the device is," says Masnick. "Can you imagine having all of your books suddenly unavailable because your Kindle stopped working?"

Scott Nelson, associate executive director of the Texas Community College Teachers Association, raised a more pedagogical concern in his blog, wondering "whether reading with one of these devices produces a different result educationally," over time.

Skepticism about Kindle is perhaps most prevalent among one of the tool's biggest potential user bases: students.

"Studying is different from reading," Nelson stated, hinting that while Kindle may be great for recreational readers, it is not the best application of technology for students who frequently read with a need to retain the information and pass an exam. Still, the Kindle offers some study tools; it has a small keyboard for jotting down notes in the eText "margins," performing searches, etc. It also has a dictionary and free wireless access to Wikipedia.

Interestingly, skepticism about Kindle is perhaps most prevalent among one of the tool's biggest potential user bases: students. In Wesleying, a student-run and student-produced blog at Wesleyan University (CT), an overwhelming number of undergraduate students said they'd miss the feeling of turning the pages and bending the spines of conventional books.

Vera Sun, a freshman at the University of California- Berkeley, agrees, adding that books, despite their remarkably low-tech approach, are foolproof under just about any circumstance. "You can take [a book] everywhere," she recently told the school's newspaper, The Daily Californian. "[Besides], sometimes the internet doesn't work."

Light a Candle for Kindle?

Clearly, the future of the Kindle (and its imitators, sure to come) is up for grabs. This could be the latest attempt to "techno-vate" what's been to many, throughout the centuries, something as perfect as the wheel. Then again, the protests we're hearing may sound strangely like the objections once made to the telephone ("Why do we need some contraption when we can walk next door or send a letter?"), the radio ("Who wants to be hit by invisible waves?"), and the television ("Why should we stay home and stare at a small screen when every town has a movie theater?").

What's your take on the Kindle? What do you like about the device? What sparks your concern? E-mail us at [email protected]. Meanwhile, excuse me while I take my lunch out of the microwave and settle in for an interesting lecture on my iPod.

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