Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kindle, E-Readers, and the future of books

Last week my wife gave me a Sony E-Reader for our anniversary. I picked it over the Kindle because Sony has access to all of the Google Books and its store has a way for me to check out library e-books. (I also picked it because I always try to pick against whatever seems to be the hot trend, and Kindle is definitely that.)

I'm in the middle of reading three books on the reader--a mystery, a non-fiction work on buddhism, and an 1823 publication on what we would call peer-led education today. (The latter is actually a fascinating book. Here is a link to the Google Books version.)

My verdict? That the reader is as good as the content that you load onto it. The mystery is outstanding, the buddhism book is a more touchy-feely than I think the subject merits, and the 19th century education philosophy book is a slog but worth it.

On one hand this is a pretty dull conclusion. But a lot of the discussion about technology and education ignores it, focusing instead on the medium. The question we ask is "how cool is the tool?" not "does the tool help students do what they need to do?" I understand the desire to "prove" that the Kindle is great, or that the I-Pod can be used for education, or that OpenCourseWare is the future of education. But too often the discussion gets no further, in spite of the fact that crummy content (think Liberace on the I-Pod) makes any tool useless.

Granted, I am already a multi-platform reader. No day goes by that I don't read a newspaper, magazine, book, and computer. So adding an e-book doesn't represent a barrier to me. And adding an e-book might present a barrier to certain people. (Though assumptions that technology will be an impediment to the poor and marginalized may not be true, if the examples of cell phones in the developing world are any indication.)

But if educators are going to make any meaningful use of e-readers, we will need to get past the debate over the technology. The medium is not the message. The message is.

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