Kindle DX versus Netbook as Textbook

The holy grail of ebook visionaries is the electronic textbook.  Textbooks are huge, heavy and expensive and some poor school kids carry more weight on their backs than soldiers on a march.  It’s as common to see backpack humps on college kids backs as seeing cell phones in their hands.  Ebook promoters see dollar signs whenever they spot one of those humpback students lugging around all that printed matter.

And those ebook promoters are right.  Why carry forty pounds of paper when you can carry 1 pound of electronics?  But is the Kindle DX the answer?  I don’t think so.  First, let me give you a little story.  Years ago, before audio books were even common on cassette tape, I took a two semester Shakespeare course.  We covered almost 20 plays, each tested with a very detailed 10 question quiz.  I remember how I faithfully read and studied the first play and was shocked when I only got six of the ten questions.  The professor had a pattern.  Half of the questions could be easily answered with a fair reading of the play.  One question was always about a very obscure detail that kept most people from getting a perfect 10, and the other four questions divided the class between those who really got into the play and those who didn’t.

I realized a quick reading the night before class wasn’t going to cut it, so I went to the library and got each play on LP.  They came in boxed sets of 3-4 discs.  The records were old and scratchy, but usable.  This was in the early 1980s.  I’d play the records while reading the play – it took hours.  After that I always got perfect 10s on those quizzes.  Now my magic retention rate only worked if I faithfully followed the words on the page while listening to the same words spoken.  Reading or listening by itself didn’t work.  Other than these two Shakespeare courses I never used this learning technique again in school.

However, when I started using my ears as my main sensory input for reading back in 2002, I started playing around, experimenting with each form of input.  I paid attention to what I noticed when just reading with my eyes.  Then I paid attention to what I noticed, just from listening with my ears.   I would then read something I had just listened to, or vice versa.  Each time I’d found details I had missed with the opposite method.  I discovered what the eyes learned was different from what the ears remembered.

One book I did this experiment on was Emma by Jane Austen, a book I was reading for a book club.  I listened for an hour.  Then I reread that hour with my eyes.  Listening was great for getting a sense of character and dramatic action, but it was poor on retaining words.  Austen immediately introduced too many characters – that made the story confusing.   Each character live in a house with a name, often set in a different village, with another name to remember, so I was overwhelmed by people and place names.  Seeing all those names in print helped clear up many issues. 

Again, I concluded that to study a piece of writing for academic purposes, I needed to see it with my eyes if I wanted to memorize words and spellings.  However, by listening, I experienced the nuances of conflict, characterization and plot better.  Hearing stories helped me to to imagine 3D action and settings.  I saw color and details better when I heard the words rather than read them. 

Listening, which is far slower than reading, forced me to concentrate on the subject, and that was especially reinforced when I watched the words while also listening to them.  Seeing a word and hearing it made me think about it’s pronunciation and spelling more than when I just read it with my eyes.  But listening alone is terrible for learning spelling.  There are many books I’ve only heard that I have no idea how to spell the character’s names. 

I think these observations are key to the success of future etextbooks.  Strangely enough, the Kindle now offers to read books to their owners, but they also allow Kindle users to play MP3 or Audible.com audio books while reading, although I think few people take advantage of this feature.  I sold my Kindle 1.0 to my friend who prefers to read with her eyes and loves to travel, but I do have the Kindle reader software on my iPod touch and do some reading with it.  However, iPods can’t multitask, so I have to play the audio book on my Zune and read it on the iPod touch.

From this one anecdote you might surmise that the Kindle DX will make a great etextbook, but I’m not so sure.  I found the e-ink technology clumsy for random reading, which is often what people do when they study.  Also, kids studying will be taking notes for writing papers or passing tests, so I think the future of etextbooks will be on netbooks, and those little devices are great at multitasking, allow reading and note taking and even cutting and pasting of quotes.

To really memorize details for a studied subject, I think you need to see it, hear it, and then write about it.  iPhones and Kindles don’t help here.  When I write this blog I keep a browser window open, with tabs to Google, Wikipedia and OneLook (a dictionary gateway site).

The computer literacy movement of the 1980s promised so much but delivered so damn little.  I’ve always wondered why programmers couldn’t write programs that taught math.  Kids will play video games for hours, games that mesmerize them into deep rapt attention, tricking them into learning a myriad of details from game play.  Teaching mathematics via interactive computer animation should be a no brainer, but most software that attempted the job came up with dull drills and tedious flash cards.  That doesn’t mean the concept of computer aided learning is a bust.  Anyone who has played with Mathematica should shout they’ve seen the light.

What’s needed is a synthesis of many learning techniques and technologies.  First, I think etextbooks won’t be ebooks.  That’s way too lame.  Etextbooks should combine video lectures, film clips, audio, computer CGI, and photos to go with old fashion black on white text, plus add tests, quizzes, puzzles, word problems, virtual worlds, games and any other interactive method to get kids to practice math.

If I had the money and resources to create etextbook on mathematics I would build my course around the history of math.  I’d take it from anthropological ancient history to theoretical here and now.  But I’d build it as a suite of components, usable on different platforms in different study environments.  So if the user only wanted voice, in iPod mode, they could spin through the centuries to find MP3 podcasts about the history of math.  If they were in a mood to play with their Nintendo DS, they could load up a mathematical game, or install a challenging game app on their iPhone.  If they were in the mood for a documentary, I’d let them stream video to their television sets.  Hell, I’d even offer to print puzzles for when they have to sit on the pot.

I’d also find some way to create a scoring system, especially one that could be tied to a Elo type rating system, like they use in chess, so students would feel challenged to compete.  It would be great if the American Mathematical Society had a way to rank people’s knowledge of the various Mathematics Subject Classifications.   Kids love video games because they enjoy beating friends with a specialized skill, and they also love competing against a computer too.  Traditional schooling is so boring and passive. Etextbooks need the challenge of competition, but it would be so tired if all they did was offer time competitions on who could finish solving ten equations first.

What if a Civilization type game required various mathematical skills to play, so if a student wanted to build a pyramid in the game he’d need to know geometry, or if she wanted her little Sims to sail across an ocean, she’d have to use celestial navigation to advance the game.

In other words, if publishers are only going to take the text from their printed books and put it in an ebook, that’s not going to work.  Even if the Kindle had full color and resolution to match the printed page, so a Kindle book could contain all the photos and illustrations of the real textbook, I still don’t think it will be equal to using paper volumes.  Modern textbooks are gorgeous compared to what I remember I had to use as a kid.  If I had the choice between 5 books, weighing 40 pounds, and 1 Kindle weighing less than a single pound, I’m afraid I’d shoulder the burden, because real textbooks are far easier to use, and much more spectacular to look at.  I kid you not.  If you haven’t seen a text in forty years, go find a kid and look at theirs.

When I owned my Kindle and subscribed to Time magazine, I found it easiest to read from page one to page last, and endure the time it took to page past articles I didn’t want to read.  There were navigation links, but between flipping back to the table of contents and to an article to see if I wanted to read it, it was just easier to stay in linear mode of page, page, page, page….

Etextbooks will only be better if they offer a variety of ways to study.  Ultimately, I don’t think individual etextbooks will be the answer.  I think students will subscribe to an online textbook service, and pay $4.99-$19.99 a month per course, and access a myriad of multimedia features, paying about the same as buying a textbook for a one semester course.

The old way to going to college involved scheduling a class with a professor and studying a book together in a room with other students for a few months.  Online instruction means studying on your own with a professor you might never meet who shepherds unseen students through a system of requirements.  Wouldn’t you prefer a textbook service that gave you podcasts to listen to at the gym or grocery store or while doing the dishes, and video lectures to watch before bedtime, and online games to play against your classmates, and ebooks to read on your iPhone at break at work.  Local college professors may stop lecturing, and end up becoming educational gurus who help their students find their way to enlightenment in the subjects they paid to master.

The textbook of the future will have to be very flexible.  I don’t even go to school, but I study all the time.  I just finished the audio book The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg about cosmology of the early universe just after the big bang.  I’m about to read the hardback and listen to the audio book of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which will go deeper into many documentaries I’ve been watching lately on The Science Channel and PBS, but I also want something more systematic, so I’m going to get a DVD set or two from The Teaching Company.  Their great DVD courses would be fantastic to keep on a netbook.

The more I study cosmology and physics, the more I feel the need to study mathematics.  I wish I could find something like the RosettaStone language courses to help me.  I also wish I had something that tested and rated my knowledge.  I don’t feel the need to go back to college and major in physics, but if an astronomical association offered online testing, with amateur rankings, I might be tempted by their challenge.  Our K-12 upbringing made most of us to hate learning, mainly because they made gaining knowledge all about passing crappy tests.  Video games are a form of test taking, a fun kind, that addict kids.

It’s a shame that most adults study new subjects like snacking on potato chips.  We constantly nibble on information but are never challenged to do anything with our empty data calories.  People will spend 60 hours a week playing online video games that require an amazing amount of study just to slay imaginary dragons or build pretend lives in Second Life.  Why not set up servers and let players build an historically accurate virtual Tudor England, so they could apply their hobby history scholarship to a challenge.  What if teachers told their students, “Your homework for this week is to create a virtual Mayflower, and show why the Puritans came to America.  Each of you must flesh out one historical character and show that person in twenty scenes from their life interacting with the characters your classmates create.  Please tell you’re parents they aren’t allowed to play this week.”

See why I think existing invention of the textbook shouldn’t be converted into a gadget that only displays electronic words and images on an electronic page because it’s lighter than a bulky book?  Modern textbooks are already bursting their bindings trying to become multimedia experiences.  E-ink would be a huge step backwards.  Go find a 2009 textbook, and flip through it.  What I’m saying will be obvious.  It will also be obvious that the weight of all the knowledge within that tome won’t be easily consumed by your darling rug rat.  Today’s kids chow down on HD video and 1080p Xbox games.  The Sirens of virtual worlds call to kids and the printed black letter on white paper, or gray e-ink, just won’t charm them.

JWH – 7/3/9   

4 Responses

  1. I would very much like to see a true multi-media, multi-sensor teaching module / class / whatever you want to name it. I was excited by the promise of artificial intellegence in computer-based teaching during the 70s then increasingly disappointed when nothing seemed to emerge. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of something workable.

    Such a teaching application should allow the separation of testing for grading from testing as a metric to steer learning effort. Perhaps learning will become a more pleasant experience when a student is not penalized for mistakes during the learning process. Why not let the student decide when to be tested for grading?

    This approach could change the role of colleges. Developing and publishing couse material might be separate from degree certification. A student might or might not use a given university’s course material to prepare for a comprehensive set of examinations offered by that university which certifies the student as meeting the standards of a degree program.

  2. Brilliant James.

    I agree completely that the e-textbook must be multimedia, and the Kindle DX in b/w just isn’t going to cut it. Maybe the Apple iPad, rumored for a September announcement will do it, but how many times have you dropped a text book (and not because of weight, but because — well just because). College kids treat their notebook with their lives, but a e-textbook reader AND a notebook?

    Spent last night blogging here addressing poorly what you said so eloquently. Going to bookmark you.

    http://peterhayward.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/the-kindle-is-amazon-selling-razors-or-razor-blades/

    Peter Hayward

  3. As I was reading your blog, I was thinking of John Gibson Warry’s book entitled Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors and Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome. It would be a perfect candidate for an etextbook.

  4. I know loads of Kindle and DX owners are a bit annoyed that it’s still hard to find many publishers that offer proper textbooks for student owners like me. I just found this site a few weeks ago though, http://www.bookboon.com and these guys publish a huge range of textbooks and every single textbook is made available to download free of charge in a compatible pdf e-book format with no registration. It’s a totally 100% free textbook solution perfect for new Kindle owners like me looking for good and free academic content!

    They actually just put up a new accounting series, really good used the ones on Liabilities and Equity and Balanced Scorecard this year as prep for my acca exams. There is also a facebook app with all the books on, http://apps.facebook.com/bookboon Check it out guys…

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