I recall from my youth in the Soviet Union a series of jokes structured around a fake talk radio call-in show. One example stuck with me:
Q: Is it possible to create a Communist regime in an arbitrary country? Say France, for example.
A: In principle, yes. But what has France ever done to deserve that?
I was reminded of this joke by a recent article describing how a school would be replacing its library with electronic devices. The plan is to replace the stacks with three large monitors, “laptop-friendly” study carrels, and 18 e-book readers (Amazon Kindles and Sony eReaders). They are also planning to replace textbooks with electronic versions, at least in math, and possibly in other subjects as well.
I can see many problems with this vision of the future of reading based on the notion that books are an outdated technology. I’ve written about e-books before (and I am still fond of the research we did in this space), and I find myself wondering about the wisdom of this venture by the headmaster of Cushing Academy.
My first concern is about the durability of the device. Unlike physical books, these are fragile pieces of electronics that are open to loss, damage, or sabotage, thereby depriving the hapless student of not just one book, but all books. Having gone to a reasonably competitive engineering school, I can attest to cases of peoples’ calculators “disappearing” just before midterms. I am certain that given a wide deployment, this fate will befall more than one electronic book device come AP exam or finals time.
Even if the devices survive being abandoned on the wet grass, the reading experience it delivers is superior to a book in quantity but not in quality. As a number of studies documented in The Myth of the Paperless Office show, paper and books are particularly well-designed for reading, and computers don’t begin to approach that combination of light weight, good contrast, high-quality color, easy, and tangible navigability (try switching among two or three passages on Kindle; now try it with a real book). A case has been made for reading on electronic devices, but that argument involves active reading that includes the ability to annotate, search, take notes, read across multiple sources, etc., operations that the current crop of devices supports only in part, if at all. And of course reading off those large wall-mounted screens is a non-starter due to their form factor. Even the laptops that most students will presumably be using are not well-suited for deep reading because their form factor forces the reader to adjust to its position, compared to shifting the book (or Kindle) in the hand.
In addition to dumping the library, Cushing Academy is also dumping at least some of its textbooks. The 16 shades of gray offered by Kindle may suffice as a replacement for a cheap paperback edition, but textbooks in most subjects benefit from color. The effectiveness of color for conveying information is one reason that most school districts have opted for the more expensive color editions. Can you imagine a geography or biology textbook without color illustrations? Even my junior high school geometry textbook used color to highlight important points. The loss of illustrations in the discarded books will surely place future students at a disadvantage.
Another aspect not mentioned in either the Mashable post or in the original boston.com article is how they are planning on managing the copyright issues associated with the collection. Unless they have only 18 students at Cushing, how will they decide who gets to read a book on a dedicated device? If the devices are all checked out, does that mean that everyone else is locked out of the “library”? OK, so this is an expensive prep school that could pass the costs of the devices to the parents, so that every kid would have a Kindle. But resolving the scarcity of devices will not affect the scarcity of titles. Will they control the number of copies of a particular title that can be read at the same time? Will online access to these books also be limited? One of the beautiful aspects of tree-books is their tangibility, and all the legal rights that possession of a volume grants you. In the digital realm, you don’t have nearly the same kinds of rights to titles, as we’ve seen in recent Amazon decisions. Let’s hope that having given up their property, the school can retain the access to the collection in the long run.
Digital reading devices are an enticing concept, one that periodically seduces venture capitalists and educators alike. We’ve seen several generations of these devices arrive full of promise of displacing the book, and depart quietly a few years later. Each generation is catalyzed by some new technological innovation (low-power CPUs, high energy density in batteries, bi-stable displays, etc.) and by the collective amnesia of early adopters. While I expect that eventually these devices will actually become useful for a broad range of reading, the current crop of devices will not be the tool of choice for education. My concern is not with the manufacturers or their finances, but rather with the loss of educational opportunities for the students who have such immature technology foisted on them in the name of progress. It’s certainly possible to offer education to children in this way. But what have they done to deserve it?